The Lynching of James Byrd
By Michael Slate
Revolutionary Worker #962, June 21, 1998
I thought it was a nightmare. I had the same feeling--a fireball growing and spinning deep down in my guts, pushing its way up past my throat. I wanted to cry and I wanted to scream. I wanted to stand on a corner, in the middle of skyscrapers, open my mouth and let loose a roar from hell. I wanted to spit flames and burn Babylon to the ground. A horrible image was seared onto the lens of my eyes. A blacktop road in the rural Texas town of Jasper stretched out to the horizon. Little white chalk circles gave the road a weird polka dot pattern. A newscaster calmly explained that the circles marked the spots where pieces of James Byrd Jr., a 49-year-old Black man, were found. As the newscaster continued on to tell how three white racists savagely dragged James Byrd, Jr. to death, the hot coffee spilling onto my hands told me this nightmare had nothing to do with the world of dreams but is everyday real life for Black people in AmeriKKKa.
I spent a lot of time listening to music over the next couple of days. There's a whole catalog of music rooted in the oppression of Black people and inspired by the struggle against it. The number of blues and jazz pieces alone tells a long story of the brutality of Black people in this country. Billie Holiday singing "Strange Fruit," a powerful ballad about a lynching in the South more than 50 years ago. Nina Simone singing "Mississippi Goddamn." Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln telling the story of slavery and slave rebellion in the "Freedom Now Suite." Max Roach pounding out "Chattahoochee Red," telling the story of the murder of Black children in Atlanta during the early 1980s. John Coltrane wailing on "Alabama" about the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham. And in the 1960s Bob Dylan, a folk-rock singer and poet whose music came out of and inspired the struggle against oppression in those days, did a song called "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol." Based on a true story, it told of how a high-society rich white man beats a Black woman, a kitchen maid in a Baltimore hotel, to death with his walking cane because he just felt like doing it.
As I listened to Dylan's song, I wondered if James Byrd, Jr. had ever heard it. He was a man who loved music. He played the piano and the trumpet and was famous in his east Texas town for his beautiful singing voice. His friends laughed as they remembered how he loved to walk around town singing, "thinking he was Al Green." Whether he did or didn't hear the song, James Byrd, Jr. died a lonesome, horrible and savage death at the hands of a pack of white racists.
On Saturday, June 6, James Byrd went to, and sang at, a couple of family get-togethers. At the end of the night he was walking home from his niece's bridal shower. Born and raised in Jasper, it seemed like everyone knew him. Although he was now divorced and lived alone, he was the father of three children. He had six sisters, and in his family he was known as "Toe" because he had lost one of his toes in a childhood injury. He was formerly a vacuum cleaner salesman who now depended on disability because of a crippling job-related injury to his left arm. And, like many Black people in Texas, or for that matter in the U.S. as a whole, James had done some prison time for minor crimes. His daughter described him as a "people person," "an entertainer always trying to tell jokes." Byrd's sister said he was one of those people who was always outgoing and friendly, somebody that everyone in town seemed to like. He often walked where he was going because he suffered from a medical disorder that brought on seizures and that prevented him from driving. So it helped that he was so well known and liked because people would often help him out by offering him a ride.
But there were some people among the 8,000 residents of Jasper who didn't like James Byrd, not because of anything he did or said but because of the color of his skin. On June 6 three of these beasts--supporters of the Ku Klux Klan complete with KKK tattoos and racist posters in their houses--offered him a ride. Who knows why James Byrd took that ride. Maybe it was because he recognized one of the men as somebody who had the same parole officer. Maybe he just never thought that there was any danger facing him in a town he thought he knew so well. But before the night was over, these modern-day slave catchers beat James Byrd senseless. They wrapped him in a chain and attached it to the back of their pick-up truck. Then they dragged James Byrd for three miles on this lonely blacktop country road. Byrd's body broke into 75 pieces. His torso was found in a ditch on the side of the road, at the end of a long trail of blood and near empty beer cans and a cigarette lighter that belonged to one of the killers--the lighter had the word "possum" inscribed on it along with a triangular symbol, which is a KKK symbol. James' head, neck and right arm were found more than a mile from his torso. Pieces of James Byrd, including his dentures, were scattered over more than 10,000 feet of roadway. Pieces of his body were lodged up in the underbody of the truck. His body was so grotesquely mauled that he could only be identified by his fingerprints.
We have to be clear about what's happened down in Jasper and where it comes from. Almost immediately after the news of the details of the murder of James Byrd became known, the media and various politicians blamed the horrendous murder on a few sick individuals. Clinton told the residents of Jasper to "join together across racial lines to demonstrate that an act of evil like this is not what this country is about." The Sheriff of Jasper County even tried to claim that there really weren't any KKK members in his county and that these three Billy Bobs were the exception. But the people know different and, as the sheriff told this lie, the Black people in the room began to holler at and mock him. No matter how many crocodile tears Clinton cries, the fact is, racism and national oppression is a big part of what this country is about. Many people in Jasper say the use of the "N word" is pretty damn common. And people can also tell about all the racist beatings and murders that have happened in east Texas over the years, many of them by the police. Or maybe they will tell how the KKK organized white people to oppose the integration of a housing project in a nearby town in 1984. I remember visiting a college near that area back in 1991. I was speaking at Prairie View College as part of the Yo! Tour of revolutionary journalists. In the unofficial segregation enforced in Texas, Prairie View was known as the Black branch of Texas A&M. The students there made a point of telling me about the deeply ingrained and widespread racism in the area, pointing out that a well-known local landmark is commonly called the lynching tree.
Only days after the murder of James Byrd, Jr., the news reported a "copy cat" crime in the Illinois town of Belleville. Baron Manning, a 17-year-old Black construction worker, was grabbed by some white men in a sports utility vehicle. According to Manning, the men in the car shouted racial slurs as they dragged him down the street for several blocks.
The murder of James Byrd, Jr. didn't happen just because three white men got into a drunken rage. This was a crime birthed and nurtured in the cradle of AmeriKKKa. Lawrence Brewer, Sr., the father of one of the men who killed James Byrd, spoke to this as he repeatedly stressed his sympathy for the victim in this case, "If the color of your skin is gonna cause you to be killed, there is something wrong with society."
In the hours after hearing about the murder of James Byrd, Jr., I spoke to many friends about it. A lot of white friends expressed their horror and disgust at the murder. What they were saying reminded me of the Refuse & Resist! slogan: "I used to be a white American but I gave it up in the interests of humanity." A few Black friends seriously challenged me off of hearing about the murder. They wanted to know if, in the face of all this--all the insane cruelty and hatred crammed into the murder of James Byrd Jr.-- I still believed that things can and will change.
As I thought about my answer to this challenge, I was reminded of a statement Frederick Douglass made back in 1852 about the meaning of July 4th to the slave and how, in many ways, very little has changed over the last 150 years. At the end of this statement Douglass declared, "Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the every-day practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival."
AmeriKKKa may have no rivals, but its horrific oppression has produced hundreds of millions of enemies inside its borders and around the world. Can we really change things? Yes, a million times over, yes! More than that, we, the enemies of AmeriKKKa, have to do this. But it can only be done through our struggle, our all-out revolutionary struggle to completely overthrow this society, finally opening up the possibility of digging out all the sick and twisted diseases it gives rise to. And on that day, the story of James Byrd, Jr.--along with all the slave stories--will be told to the children to teach them why we must never again allow a society as sick as this one to torture humanity.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)