Crime and Context

The murder of James Byrd Jr. was an act of barbarism, a crime that should be incomprehensible. How we all wish we could take some solace in that the horror happened out there, out in the piney woods of East Texas. The location matters not, for history tells us it could have happened anywhere, and has happened almost everywhere--in piney woods, in swamps, near mountains and near beaches. And still happens in 1998.

The 49-year-old father of three was walking home from his niece’s bridal shower on Sunday when three men with reported ties to white supremacist groups allegedly abducted him, chained him to their pickup and dragged him two miles down a winding, asphalt road, tearing off his head and his right arm.

Byrd’s death is America’s shame, evidently another man tortured for no reason--other than the color of his skin.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which considers the murder a hate crime, said there was no evidence that the slaying was the work of anyone but the three “ruthless” men who are accused. The center is right to caution people against reckless conspiracy theories. But such crimes do not spring from a vacuum. They are stoked in the everyday acceptance of racial intolerance.


That’s why it’s so disconcerting to hear the folk of Jasper express surprise that a racial crime could happen in their “quiet country town where people like to spend evenings rocking on porch swings.”

“You never thought this would happen here, everybody seemed to get along,” one said. How blind. It’s easy to tsk-tsk at the obvious denial going on in Jasper. How many more of us wouldn’t also insist that in spite of segregated neighborhoods and separated lives we all “seem to get along”?

The local sheriff said the three men accused in the killing--Lawrence Russell Brewer, Shawn Allen Berry and John William King--had ties to the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nation. Two had prominent tattoos virtually shouting their supremacist beliefs. As Texas writer Molly Ivins put it, “the region around Jasper is more like the Old South than most of the Old South.” But not the romantic Old South. All three of the accused, and Byrd himself, had spent time in prison.

What authorities must do now is move promptly to prosecution so that, as NAACP President Kweisi Mfume put it, the cowards who did this “never walk the street again as free men.” The Justice Department should act under the federal civil rights statute if necessary. This case and every one like it should receive the highest priority from all justice agencies.


President Clinton declared Wednesday that Americans must “demonstrate that an act of evil like this is not what this country is all about.” Unlike years ago, the crime has been pursued aggressively and prosecutions will occur. In that regard, it’s progress. But the old demons of hatred based on what a person looks like continue their grip. Even as the nation enters a new century, it’s too easy and glib to shake our heads and pretend that what happened to James Byrd Jr. couldn’t still happen anywhere.