A Jew Don Boney, Maxine Waters, Sheila Jackson Lee, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and Rodney Ellis, attending the funeral of James Byrd, Jr. Jana Birchum DATELINE TEXAS One Night in East Texas BY SUSAN LEE SOLAR Editor’s Note: Following the brutal murder of James Byrd, Jr., in Jasper, Texas, in the early morning of Sunday, June 7, Susan Lee Solar accompanied a Spanish journalist to Jasper, acting as a translator for a report for the Spanish press. Solar later provided her own account of the visit to the Observer. “One Night in East Texas” is an edited excerpt. Jasper, June 10 We arrived a little after 6 p.m., a bit too late to hear Jesse Jackson preaching at a local black church. As the faithful filed in for a devotional scheduled to follow Jackson’s sermon, a middle-aged deacon stood outside the front door. He said nothing like this murder had ever happened in Jasper. Not long after, we heard a different, more complicated story. Around the corner from the church, James Byrd, Sr., visibly depressed and drained, sat with a friend on the front porch of his home. He directed us within to his daughter, Clara Taylor, who had taken charge of speaking to reporters since the murder, three nights earlier. Taylor, at fifty a year older than her brother, teaches science at a Houston junior high school. The house was full of family and friends, but after a few minutes of conversation we were interrupted by a group of F.B.I. agents, who filed into the room to interview the family as part of the ongoing investigation. While we waited we talked with Calvin Birdlong, who had directed us to the Byrd home from the church. Birdlong works at the local funeral home which handled James Byrd, Jr.’s remains, and he volunteered to show us the road, on the eastern edge of town, where late Saturday night Byrd had been murdered. Taylor had told us that on Saturday afternoon, the whole Byrd clan except James’ son, named after his father, who is in the Army and stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia were together to attend a niece’s bridal shower. James played with his year-old granddaughter, who was visit ing from Hawaii with her mother, one of his two daughters. Later that evening, James caught a ride with another sister to the home of friends, whom he joined for dinner. From there, he ONE PERSON WE INTERVIEWED SPEC-ULATED THAT BYRD’S KILLING WAS IN FACT AN OFFICIAL RETRIBUTION, AND THAT EX-CONS BREWER AND KING WERE NOT JUST DRUNKEN RACIST THUGS, BUT HIRED MURDERERS. had walked a short distance for an anniversary celebration with old friends. Between 1:30 and 2, early Sunday morning, Byrd left to walk home. Sometime during that walk, he was picked up by the truck that carried him to his death. The truck was owned by a young white man known to Byrd,. Shawn Berry, who apparently offered him a ride. Berry was accompanied by John King and Lawrence Brewer, Jr., and according to newspaper accounts, Berry has blamed his two companions for what happened next. Outraged at Berry’s invitation; his companions told him they were “fixin’ to scare the shit out of this nigger.” But Byrd’s neighbors told us that the three men accused of the murder had recently been hanging out at a black-owned barbecue joint. That night some regular patrons, at a private party nearby, had seen Berry’s grey and white truck pass back and forth several times. They now believe the men in the truck were looking for a victim. Either James Byrd, Jr., was particularly unlucky, or he was the man the killers were looking for. At ccompanied by Birdlong, we drove to he place where James Byrd died. After hearing reports of a body found on the edge of town, Birdlong had helped police officers locate and collect parts of the body. Most were very small pieces, strewn along the road since marked by investigators with spray-painted red circles, a few labeled for evidence. One circle, alongside a culvert directly in front of a well-kept yard, is marked “HEAD” -identifying the spot where Byrd’s head, one shoulder, arm, and neck were found. The spot is near a parking lot beside a THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5 JULY 3, 1998
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