Back to mobile

Long Road Out of Jasper: A Documentary Chronicles James Byrd Jr.’s Life and Tragic Death

by Published on
Scenes from Byrd: The Life and Tragic Death of James Byrd Jr.
Scenes from Byrd: The Life and Tragic Death of James Byrd Jr.

Fifteen years ago, on a hot June night in the small East Texas city of Jasper, James Byrd Jr. left a party at a friend’s house and began the long walk to his home on the other side of town. Accustomed to catching rides with passing drivers, the 49-year-old African-American apparently didn’t hesitate when a pickup stopped and a white man he was acquainted with, Shawn Berry, offered to take him home. Inside the truck were two other white men, Lawrence Brewer and John King, both of whom had ties to white supremacist groups in and out of prison. Byrd never made it home.

When the story of the abduction and murder of James Byrd Jr. hit the next day’s news, it was as if a bomb had exploded in the complacent consciousness of contemporary America. The details of the crime were almost too horrible to believe, but anyone familiar with the history of the American South could recognize the echoes of a not-so-distant past filled with arbitrary white-on-black brutality, mob justice, torture and lynchings. Berry, Brewer and King had driven Byrd to a remote country road where they beat him and chained him to the back of the truck by his ankles. The men then dragged Byrd for three and a half miles. According to the autopsy report, Byrd was most likely conscious most of that time, right up to the moment his head was severed. Police found Byrd’s remains in 81 places along the road. By the end of the day after the crime, all three suspects were in custody.

While Byrd’s murder shocked the world, what surprised comedian and longtime civil rights activist Dick Gregory most was the speed with which news of the crime spread. In the documentary Byrd: The Life and Tragic Death of James Byrd Jr., directed by Eligah and Sharon Jason, Gregory marvels at how quickly reporters from the lurid world of 24-hour news picked up on the story and descended upon Jasper. Gregory, who is old enough to remember the media’s indifference to pre-civil rights-era horrors, viewed the sensationalist, echo-chamber omnipresence of the media during the Byrd affair not as a cause for cynicism, but as an indication of progress: That the media cared about a lynched black man in Texas, much less that they cared with such vigor, came as a shock to people who had long since grown jaded about the country’s indifference to racial violence.

Gregory recalls the story of Emmett Till’s mother, who, in 1955, demanded an open casket at her son’s funeral so that his marred face and body would be displayed for all the world to see. When a picture of Till’s unrecognizable corpse appeared on the cover of Jet Magazine after that funeral, lynchings nearly ceased in America, Gregory says. As disgraceful and shameless as the media can be in our age of saturation coverage, overwhelming television interest in an injustice like Byrd’s murder (no matter how salacious, titillating and profit-driven that interest might be) is better than indifference. Gregory’s words are almost enough to make you respect the workings of Fox and MSNBC. Almost.

The media’s response to the murder of James Byrd Jr. was a sign of America’s glacial evolution toward something like racial equality, as was the tearing down of a fence between the black and white sections of Jasper’s cemetery and the far more significant passage by the Texas Legislature of the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act in 2001. But it’s too much to hope that one incident can entirely change entrenched attitudes. Eventually the cameras and reporters head back to the coasts, and life moves back toward normal. In 2004 two teenagers were charged with desecrating Byrd’s grave with racial slurs, and today, 15 years after the incident, because of lingering racial tensions in the area (including a recent video of two Jasper police officers beating an African-American woman) the film’s producers have announced that they will “never show the film” in Jasper. “The town,” they write, “has not changed since James Byrd.”

Social evolution being impossible to quantify, it’s hard to know exactly where the producers’ indignation ends and their desire to promote Byrd’s new availability on Amazon Instant Video begins. Call that question yet another example of the moral vagaries of the modern media landscape.

So while Byrd is not a great documentary, or even a good one (the production values are amateur, and the directors are more interested in paying tribute to Byrd than investigating what his murder says about American racial politics), the fact that its producers are unwilling to screen the film in the town its subject called home, for fear of racist backlash, may be proof enough of its importance.

  • Ricky Jason

    hi from the film maker ricky jason every family needs to see this award winning documentary film BYRD: THE LIFE AND TRAGIC DEATH OF JAMES BYRD JR. YOU CAN WATCH IT ON amazon.com or order it on AMAZON.COM

    • Richard hopson

      Ricky Jason, you and all them others that came and made a movie about jasper Tx and the tragic crime that took place there, well your story is wrong, it’s only half the story and quarter of the truth.. James Byrd was a crack head yes smoked crack daily, he was a outstanding citizen of Jasper, he was in and out of prison, he also was racist behind walls, he always would start race wars in T.D.C and then hide behind his kind… He was always making racial comments to and about whites.. He was warned by the whites from his town, and he ignored them and blew it off, while he was incarcerated he thought he was untouchable, but you can’t always have a gang to protect you because there not going to be there on the outside.. See he started shit with these guys in prison then when released and the others were released, he done it so much to the whites, he didn’t recognize that one of them he was talking with in that truck was the same man that warned him in T.D.C, so Byrd isn’t the victim the real victim are the three that will no longer see there family.. Byrd should have known Karma would come back and bite him… So really if you was warned ahead of time then ignore it, how’s it the others fault for sticking to his word… A mans word is a mans bond..so your movie is bullshit and sit on false statements.. To find out the truth and facts interview the warden and guards on the units he touched down on…then you will know the real James Byrd.

  • Ricky Jason

    YOU WISH YOU COULD HAVE DONE THIS GREAT FILM.THAT’S WHY IT’S IN THIS MONTH MAGAZINE JULY2013 26 AWARDS HATER WE LOVE IT.JASPER TEXAS HAVE NOT CHANGED

    • Guest

      You all are quick to say it’s racism. When you don’t have a clue were or what went on.. You are mentioning two murders that were done in two different counties involving three whites and one black, yeah it’s wrong and always talked about. I guess all you prejudice black folks forgot when them three blacks from jasper beat and ran over a Hemphill man for no reason.. He didn’t owe them anything, he was going to buy them gas, the only thing he had done wrong was agreed to ride with them to the store..that ride cost him his life, that happened between Hemphill and pineland. Let me guess that wasn’t a hate crime, a drug deal gone wrong. No it was a hate crime.. The names were Darrell Gilbert, Blake White, and a female all from jasper the Sabine county man which was white was named Ken Bimbo Tillery Sr. If it’s not a hate crime against the blacks harming the whites then that’s it’s not when the whites do the same to the blacks..what about when them three jasper black boys knocked on a white mans motel door when he answered they beat him with a metal object (shovel) in the face and head nearly killing him.. Let me guess not a hate crime… Yes alll them we’re hate crimes.. So before you go talking all this hatred y’all might need to study your facts, every town has hate crimes it’s just them two counties are always being used in media, and compared against.. When all you attention seekers need to let the past go, and let the punishment that was giving be the end of the story, and let the victims and there family’s rest and not always reminded..So for you all that doesn’t know what your talking about or don’t wanna mention your race wrong doing.. Quit seeking some sympathy from others and judging from what you hear.. Further more this missing Alfred Wright, as far as I have read and researched no one knows were he is are what happen to him, so we’re does racism even come in play, when as far as I see he was do for federal indictment in Tennessee for theft or embezzlement around the same time he had disappeared, so I believe the family of Alfred wright either knows more than there showing and making a big issue out of it to cover his and there tracks, or he didn’t love and care for them as equal as they did for him.. So for all y’all that are quick to talk down on that small Texas town known as Hemphill pop. 1106 until you been there and visited and experienced that quite beautiful town. Please don’t call it a racial place or call the citizens in it prejudice.. Cause I’m from there and know the majority of the families of both races, and I’m telling you and everyone else that believes and thinks they know so much about Us there, your dumb or clueless.. The ones that holler it’s race crime or usually the same ones that call the other race names under there breath, just cause your prejudice doesn’t make Us all.. So read up on your facts and tell all the stories that had took place in the town your speaking of that had to do with race violence, not the stories to make your race look like the victims.. That’s just two stories of each race and the same two towns that are mentioned as being prejudice counties.. So no it’s not Us whites that are prejudice it just certain people in each race that’s that way..

      • CINDY FRANCIS

        I STAND WITH YOU ON THIS SUBJECT. THE JUSTICE SYSTEM IS MORE RACIST THAN SOME OF US, THE JUDGES, LAWYERS, AND THE JURY BASIS THEIR PUNISHMENT UPON THE COLOR OF THE ACCUSED’S SKIN. NOW, STOP AND THINK ABOUT IT. YOU WILL SEE WHAT OUR JUSTICE SYSTEM IS ALL ABOUT.

  • Ricky Jason

    an the producers of this award winning film on james byrd jr did not give the texas observer magazine premission an authorization to use clips of the film to sale this magazine. that’s grounds for a lawsuite. our lawers say.

  • Ricky Jason

    josh rosenblatt you must be a racist kkk social evolution you are a saa hold

  • Richard hopson

    The truth… James Byrd was a crack head that when was incarcerated he liked to run that mouth to white folks and make racial comments why around others his color, because he felt and knew they would protect him from getting beat down.. He was warned numerous times about that mouth and even told by one of the suspects why in T.D.C that happen to be from Jasper also, that when free from prison. And seen on the streets that he was gonna get him, and the man held his word to the crack head, so before y’all say it was a hate crime towards the blacks, your wrong it was a hate crime that the victim formed behind walls, just forgot who all he started shit with because that was James Byrd behind walls, racial, shit starter, that hid behind other blacks and known gangs from his local area.. So if it’s considered a hate crime remember the victim had started it all, and for once karma caught up with him…sorry that three men had to give there life’s to stop a predator

    • Jacklyn Romo

      & who could blame him from all the violence white people have done to black people. you sir are the racist, calling someone who’s black a predator. It is people like you who have turned the world to shit. Would you like someone treating your kids or your family different because they APPEAR different? Like my African American history teacher says “there is no such thing as race, only the human race” Sorry to three white supremacists? You are on the side that believes that whites are better than any other race out there. people like you should be exiled from society. Go join the kkk that is obviously where you belong. We don’t need people like you ruining society & having our future generation more fucked up.

    • http://batman-news.com DIRTY REDDS

      First of all, him being a crack head does not have anything to do with him being murdered. You have so many white crack heads, meth users and heroine user its a shame. You must have forgotten all thats been said and done to OUR African American ancestors for years. Ppl get tired of being hushed and secretly discussing these things amongst family/loved ones when the system is so Prejudice that you can’t even prosecute a murderer/rapist/lyncher for his crimes. The issue here is not about what he did in his own leisure time, it’s about him being picked up and brutally murdered because of the color of his skin. Who the hell cares about him being in jail and talking sh*t, that’s no excuse, but they used that as a way to get away with their crime and justice was indeed served. You wanna talk about those three guys not seeing their families anymore?? Think about all the Black ppl that have been lynched, sodomized and/or murdered for decades. Some, the families know what happened to them in its entirety and some will never know. How do you think those families feel? Some have gone away from here and never found out about their loved ones that were murdered years ago. This bullcrap has gone on long enough, and its time that you white racist people take ownership of your wrong doing, instead you do your wrong and go hide in plain site or behind law officials who are just like yourselves. It’s disgusting to have to come to the reality that one human being can do such horrible things to another human being. There are all types of bad ppl in the world that do such stupid and unspeakable things but when you have this type of hatred in your heart for someone because they look differently than you, thats just low and heartbreaking. Racism is taught, you are not born to hate and GOD, no matter what you White Supremicists believe, does not tolerate this kind of foolery. IT HAS TOO STOP!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Sean D. Howard Sr.

    I’m trippin on the fact that James Byrd let 3 white dudes talk him into getting into their truck and drive him to a secluded area to kill him…lmbo Ain’t no way in hell a black dude where I’m from. (Gary, In. & the Chicago) area) would let a bunch of white dudes talk them into getting inside their truck for a ride. We don’t trust a motherfucka. especially a bunch of white dudes…lmfao