black church, across the road from a black cemetery. According to press reports of the autopsy, Byrd was still alive when he was chained, face down, to the bumper of Berry’s truck. The road he was dragged along is not densely populated, but there are several well-kept homes, occupied by black residents. Birdlong says the neighbors heard nothing out of the ordinary that night. We crossed a wooden bridge. Just to the left, as Huff Creek Road heads out of town toward Newton, is a single-lane, dirt road leading into the woods. Berry told police that King drove the truck a mile down that road to a spot where King and Brewer stripped, beat, and according to Birdlong, castrated Byrd, before chaining him to the bumper. At that spot, Byrd’s clothes and a set of wrenches with Berry’s name on it were found Sunday by police investigating the report of a body. The wrenches led police to Berry and his friends. Inside Byrd’s slacks was a receipt from a local grocery store where on Saturday he had made some purchases with his food stamp card. Since Byrd’s brutalized features were unrecognizable, the card allowed police to identify him as the victim. We drove slowly along the road, following the trail of tire tracks, blood, and red circles. As night came on, the sounds of crickets and birds filled the air. A few cars passed, most with black occupants. Alongside the culvert where Byrd’s head, shoulder, and arm had been found, a pair of policeman’s white plastic gloves still lay in the grass. Recounting the search for body parts and evidence, Birdlong said that because of his own working familiarity with death, he had been emotionally unaffected. But later he angrily described how he would like to see the slow and painful execution of Byrd’s murderers. It was a common sentiment among Byrd’s neighbors. We turned into the church’s dirt parking lot, across from the cemetery. Birdlong pointed to tracks from Berry’s truck, which had apparently criss-crossed the rough surface in order to more thoroughly mutilate Byrd’s body. It seems likely that just after the truck left the lot, Byrd’s head flew off and banged into the nearby concrete culvert, hard enough to bash a hole in his skull. While Birdlong directed us along the murder route, he told us of stories and ru A Members of the family of James Byrd, Jr. mors circulting among the black residents of Jasper, stories later echoed and supplemented by the neighbors and friends holding vigil outside the Byrd home. The stories call into question the official version of the Byrd murder, as a random killing by racist excons in a town otherwise undisturbed by active racism. True or not, the stories reflect an atmosphere of deep-seated racial fear and mistrust in Jasper: tales of young black men in the drug trade, assassinated and their bodies left in dumpsters; a man murdered at a nearby lake and dumped in a black community swimming pool; a black federal agent murdered and “disappeared” while investigating local police corruption; drug-dealing in the town allegedly financed by white professionals \(using black youngsters for districials to cover up the crimes. Inevitably, rumors have also followed the murder of James Byrd, who in the past had spent some time in’jail for petty crimes. Several people who knew Byrd well said that like many former inmates, Byrd had become a skilled self-taught lawyer, had filed suit against local officials \(even appealing to the advice to local black businessmen. One person we interviewed speculated 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. We returned to the Byrd home and talked with Clara Taylor, who graciously gave us twenty min utes at the end of a long day of similar, difficult conversations. Taylor attributed the family’s strength to their Christian faith, their closeness, and their ability to recall, with humor, remarks of the funloving James. Byrd was nicknamed “Toe,” because of an old injury, and was well-known in the community as an excellent singer and trumpet player, who entertained at community gatherings. There had been little time, said Taylor, to let the shock and horror of the murder sink in. Considering the accused murderers, she wondered, “How did they get this way?” and longed for some expression of remorse. But she realizes she should not expect remorse from declared racists, who apparently did not consider her brother a human being. Taylor said she believes the murderers deserve the death penalty. She ended by saying Jasper had been basically a good place to live, but still, a person “should not be naive and believe things are as they seem to be.” As we took our leave her nephew, James Byrd III, arrived from Georgia, to join his family in mourning. Susan Lee Solar is a writer and environmental activist who is running for governor as an independent, write-in candidate. attend his wake Jana Birchum 6 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JULY 3, 1998
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