James Byrd Jr. Biography

(1949–1998)
James Byrd Jr. was an African-American man whose racially motivated murder in 1998 made national headlines and sparked legislative changes.

Synopsis

James Byrd Jr. was born in Texas in 1949. On June 7, 1998, he accepted a ride from three white men, who beat him, chained him to the back of a truck and dragged him to his death. His brutal murder made national headlines, with two of the assailants drawing the death penalty. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law.

Early Life and Family

James Byrd Jr. was born on May 2, 1949, in Beaumont, Texas, the third of eight children born to Stella and James Byrd Sr. Growing up in Jasper, a small bedroom community in East Texas, his family's life revolved around the Greater New Bethel Baptist Church, where Mrs. Byrd taught Sunday School, her husband was a deacon and James Jr. enjoyed singing hymns and playing piano. Byrd graduated with the last racially segregated class at Jasper's Rowe High School in 1967. 

Despite an excellent academic record and encouragement from his parents, Byrd did not follow his two older sisters to college. Instead, he married a few years out of high school and fathered three children: Renee, Ross and Jamie. Byrd worked sporadically as a vacuum salesman but struggled with alcoholism, and spent a few years in prison for petty theft. 

Byrd and his wife divorced in 1993, and he returned to Jasper in 1996 and set out to improve his life by entering Alcoholics Anonymous. His friends and family described him as a friendly father and grandfather who was charismatic, musically talented and generally well liked.

Byrd’s Murder

Walking home from his parents’ house in the early morning hours of June 7, 1998, the 49-year-old Byrd accepted a ride home from three (allegedly drunk) white men: Shawn Allen Berry, Lawrence Russell Brewer and John William King. Byrd got in the bed of their pickup truck, but instead of taking him home, they drove him to a desolate area east of town, beat him severely, chained him to the back of the truck by his ankles and dragged him for more than three miles along an asphalt road. Byrd, who remained conscious throughout the dragging and even managed to keep his head up for a while during the incident, was killed when his right arm and head were severed after hitting the edge of a sewage drain culvert. Byrd’s headless torso was dumped off Huff Creek Road in Jasper. 

After discovering the body, police found a wrench with "Berry" written on it along the area where Byrd was dragged, and Byrd’s belongings and remains were found scattered nearby. Just a few months after the crime, Brewer, King and Berry were all convicted of capital murder. Brewer was executed by the state of Texas on September 21, 2011, marking the very first time in Texas history that a white person received a death sentence for killing a black person. Ross Byrd, the only son of James Byrd and a staunch anti-death penalty advocate, publicly protested Brewer's execution. King is currently on Texas' death row, while Berry is serving a life prison sentence.

Byrd’s Funeral and Public Response

Because Brewer and King were well-known white supremacists (King was a member of the KKK and had several racist tattoos, including one depicting a black man being lynched from a cross), law enforcement officials were quick to recognize this vicious attack as a racially motivated hate crime, and the news of Byrd’s "lynching-by-dragging" quickly spread. 

On the day of his funeral, Byrd’s family church overflowed with over 200 mourners, including Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, leaving 600 others to mourn outside. Basketball star Dennis Rodman paid for the funeral expenses, while fight promoter Don King donated $100,000 to support Byrd's family.

Texas Hate Crime Law and The Shepard-Byrd Act

On May 11, 2001, Texas Governor Rick Perry signed the James Byrd Hate Crimes Act into law, strengthening penalties for crimes motivated by a victim's race, religion, color, sex, disability, sexual preference, age or national origin in the state of Texas. The Byrd family also worked with Matthew Shepard's family to pass the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was signed into law on October 28, 2009, by President Barack Obama, with two of Byrd’s sisters, Louvon Harris and Betty Boatner, by his side. Activism surrounding Byrd’s murder drove these laws into place, effectively recognizing the importance of prosecuting violence motivated by racism and other bias-related crimes.

Continued Legacy and Healing

Following Byrd’s death, his family established the James Byrd Foundation for Racial Healing, which conducts diversity workshops, awards scholarships to minorities and runs an oral history project with more than 2,600 personal stories about racism. 

The city of Jasper also responded to Byrd’s tragic murder. On January 20, 1999, townspeople celebrated as the wrought-iron fence that had separated the graves of black and white people in Jasper City Cemetery (where Byrd and his mother are buried) since 1836 was torn down. The city also erected a park in his honor, the James Byrd Jr. Memorial Park. 

James Byrd Jr.

(Photo: AP / Byrd Family)

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