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.

Who Was James Byrd, Jr.? 

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.

James Byrd Jr.

(Photo: AP / Byrd Family)

Early Life and Family

Born on May 2, 1949, in Beaumont, Texas, James Byrd Jr. was the third among eight children born. His parents, Stella and James Byrd Sr., raised the family in an East Texas community called Jasper, and their lives revolved around church life. While Byrd's mother served as a Sunday School teacher, his father was a deacon at the Greater New Bethel Baptist Church. A young Byrd also contributed by singing and playing the piano. In 1967 Byrd graduated from Jasper Rowe High School as part of the last segregated class in its history.

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

In the early morning of June 7, 1998, Byrd was leaving his parents' house when he accepted a ride from three (allegedly drunk) white men: Shawn Allen Berry, Lawrence Russell Brewer and John William King.

Instead of driving Byrd home, the three men drove the 49-year-old to a deserted area and beat him. Wrapping a chain around his ankles, they dragged him down an asphalt road for over three miles. Byrd managed to stay conscious while being dragged until his head and right arm were severed by a culvert. Byrd’s headless torso was dumped off alongside a road in Jasper. 

After police discovered Byrd's body, they searched the area and recovered a wrench with the name "Berry" attached to it and some of Byrd's belongings. 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 costs, 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, offers scholarships to people of color 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. 

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