Bud Kennedy

1998: When James Byrd was murdered in East Texas

Jasper, TX reflects on James Byrd before execution of his killer

James Byrd's family and other Jasper, TX residents reflect on Byrd's life and death before the execution of John William King.
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James Byrd's family and other Jasper, TX residents reflect on Byrd's life and death before the execution of John William King.

Editor’s note: This column was published in the Star-Telegram on June 14, 1998.

JASPER — Nobody usually does much killin’ in deep East Texas.

“Just a whole lot of stealin’,” said Opal Hoffman, 68, who sleeps nights with a loaded .22 pistol at her side inside her Angelina County roadside convenience store, Buddy’s Bag-&-Boogie.

“People out here aren’t mean,” she said: “But a lot are always tryin’ to get somethin’ for nothin’. That’s a way of life around here.

“Stealin’ — robbin’ — no killin’. Till now.”

The East Texas way of life feels a lot like the Deep South: country music, fried catfish, prayer meetings and muggy summer heat so thick that even the ceiling fans work only begrudgingly.

Now East Texas has renewed another bond with the Deep South: race killing.

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FILE--James Byrd Jr., shown in this 1997 family photo, was tied to a truck and dragged to his death along a rural East Texas road near Jasper, Tex., early Sunday, June 7, 1998. On Thursday, Nov.18, 1999, Shawn Allen Berry was convicted of capital murder in James Byrd Jr.’s dragging death. Berry will either spend life in prison or join his two co-defendants on death row. John William King, 24, and Lawrence Russell Brewer, 32, both avowed racists, were convicted and sentenced to die in separate trials earlier this year.(AP Photo/Byrd Family Photo) Coiurtesy photo Via AP

Three young whites — two convicted burglars and a drug offender — now face charges of murder in the grisly death of Jasper resident James “Toe” Byrd, chained to a truck bumper by his ankles and dragged 2 miles through the Piney Woods.

An hour’s drive from any interstate highway, two hours from the nearest international airport or atrium shopping mall, Jasper is a remote logging town deep in the East Texas backwoods, 25 miles from the Sabine River bridge and Louisiana.

In appearance and personality, it resembles almost any East Texas timber town. But it would be a mistake to stereotype Jasper as just another suffering, socially backward redneck retreat.

Settled in the early 19th century and drawn as one of the original 23 Texas Republic counties, Jasper County is miles from a state line but not miles from the South.

Surrounded by tall forests and 5-mile-wide lakes, in country settled by transplants from South Carolina and Alabama, the town has more in common with Lafayette and Baton Rouge than with Lubbock.

At the Wal-Mart SuperCenter, the best-selling college T-shirts back Texas A&M and — not the University of Texas, but Louisiana State.

Quoted in the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, writer Willie Morris said that a Texan once told him the South divides at Conroe, on Interstate 45, “because west of there, the bar fights occur indoors, and to the east they were outdoors.”

Since 1921, Fort Worth has bragged that Tarrant County is “where the West begins,” and scholars have generally agreed that Dallas is the last outpost of East Texas and the South.

But one Southern scholar said the border is moving east.

“Texas is less Southern than ever,” said John Shelton Reed of Chapel Hill, N.C., a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina.

“Dallas is now very Western. The border is moving east. But when you look at the family names, the religion, the accents, the food, the music — East Texas is still definitely very Southern. The cotton country is just as Southern as Louisiana. . . . You find some atrocious race relations.”

This photograph showing a tattoo on the body of Lawrence Russell Brewer was entered into evidence Teusday Sept. 14, 1999 in Bryan, Texas during his trial. Brewer is the second of three white men charged with capital murder in the dragging death of James Byrd Jr. near Jasper, Texas. (AP Photo/Jasper County District Attorney/ho) Jasper County District Attorney's Office Via The AP

Texas’ role in the South has always been a topic of debate and denial. The state’s oldest European settlements are not far from Jasper at the old Spanish villages of Nacogdoches and San Augustine, and for a century Texas’ emotional and political heart lay with East Texas, the Confederate States of America and the South.

Texans now embrace the symbols of the West: cowboys, longhorn cattle and horses, along with an ethnically diverse culture that includes American Indians and the strong traditions of northern Mexico’s vaqueros.

But just when much of Texas had nearly forgotten the South, or at least the less savory side of its history, racism reared to life again last week (June 7, 1998) in East Texas, riding a gray primer-paint pickup with paroled burglar Bill “Possum” King, 23, at the wheel and Byrd dragging behind.

Also charged are Lawrence Brewer, 31, a cocaine offender on parole from Sulphur Springs, and Shawn Berry, 23, King’s hometown buddy and a convicted burglar on probation.

A somber sense of heartbreak and helplessness had settled over Jasper by midweek, partly concealed behind a gossamer curtain of Southern gentility.

White and black residents mingled on the county jail lawn, quietly answering every question from reporters and recommending the chicken-fried steak at Texas Charlie’s, where the lunch special sign had been replaced by another message: “Father in heaven, forgive us.”

But beyond earshot of their white neighbors, black residents wondered whom they could trust in a town that is evenly integrated but surrounded by a county that is 90 percent white.

Racial tensions have rarely flared in Jasper, a thriving lumber town of about 8,000 people with a growing economy, plenty of jobs and nary a vacancy among the historic storefronts on the courthouse square.

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Betty Byrd Boatner pauses at her brother’s gravesite Thursday, June 5, 2008 in Jasper, Texas. James Byrd Jr. was chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged to death down a country road 10 years ago in the early morning hours of June 7, 1998. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) David K. Phillip AP

Mayor R.C. Horn, an African-American, presides over the City Council, and African-American officials have led the school board and public hospital. Jasper students consistently post some of the highest African-American test scores in all East Texas, doubling and even tripling the performance of their counterparts from nearby schools.

But in author Mary Karr’s award-winning 1995 memoir, “The Liars’ Club,” she recalls a 1960s scene that clarifies how racial civility in East Texas often differs from racial equality.

Karr’s childhood memories are set in the Beaumont oilfield country miles south, but her hard-drinking, story-telling father came from the Jasper County woods.

In the book, Karr remembers how her father drank and held court at the local American Legion hall, where the audience often included his friend Cooter and Shug, “the only black man ever seen in the Legion.”

Cooter bossed and bullied Shug, Karr wrote, “because he’s colored.

“ . . . Cooter is also just walking the edge of telling colored jokes. He uses ‘Polack’ and ‘Aggie,’ but everybody — Shug included — knows that if there wasn’t a black man holding down a chair in the middle of this room they’d be ‘n-word’ this and ‘n-word’ that.

“Daddy says Cooter’s just ignorant, never knew anybody colored before. . . . But it seems mean how nobody ever says anything back to Cooter directly. Nobody says flat out, `You’re just picking on Shug because he’s colored. ‘ It seems to me like we’re not supposed to say anything about it, that it would be bad manners.”

Last week, Shug became Toe Byrd.

Silently, the people of Jasper pinned yellow ribbons to remember Byrd. Belatedly, some talked back to their young Cooters.

Johnny Ray Baker, an African-American pastor and host of a weekly Christian radio show, said Jasper is not as blatantly racist as other East Texas towns.

“I’ve seen racist towns before,” he said.

“I’ve lived all over East Texas. I lived up near an all-white town near Tyler [Grand Saline]. I’ve been to that town. Jasper isn’t anything like that town. There are towns in East Texas and the South where I might not ever want to enter. But around here, it’s just part of life.

“Hate is part of life.”

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Columnist Bud Kennedy is a Fort Worth guy who covered high school football at 16 and has moved on to two Super Bowls, seven political conventions and 16 Texas Legislature sessions. First on the scene of a 1988 DFW Airport crash, he interviewed passengers running from the burning plane. He made his first appearance in the paper before he was born: He was sold for $600 in the adoption classifieds.