A grimly powerful chronicle of a hate crime, the grisly murder of James Byrd Jr., and the soul-searching that resulted for the residents of Jasper, Texas.
Long past its prime as a prosperous lumbering town, Jasper had become by June 7, 1998, “a place where most people stopped just long enough to lick a postage stamp.” Despite a recently elected black mayor, its African-American community felt economically disenfranchised. These economic and racial tensions rose to the surface when news spread that the 49-year-old Byrd had been beaten, chained to a pickup, and dragged several miles. The killers were quickly identified: Bill King, a local resident sporting white supremacist tattoos; Russell Brewer, King’s prison buddy; and Shawn Berry, manager of the local movie theater. Relying on extensive interviews and local historical research, USA Today correspondent Temple-Raston examines not only the investigation and trial, but also the reactions of a town facing hordes of unwelcome politicians and reporters. She effectively sketches individuals from all parts of the community: the killers, a funeral director, King’s anguished father, an octogenarian attorney who had represented Jack Ruby, the town prosecutor, and, most of all, Sheriff Billy Rowles, the de facto moral center of this story. Hoping to preserve the town’s reputation, blacks and whites presented a united front before the world. Scene by scene, the author shows the two races sharing equal time at press conferences, heading off a confrontation between Ku Klux Klan members and black separatists, and tearing down the fence separating white and black sections of a cemetery. But after the guilty were sentenced and apologies for racism were made, life in Jasper assumed much of its old pattern. One of the final searing images here is of high school students, the day after the King trial, segregating themselves by race for an assembly celebrating Black History Month.
Not just a painstaking anatomy of a murder, but of the intractable difficulties in resolving America’s ongoing racial dilemma.