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Jasper is extremely small, a typical East Texas bedroom community. Home to nearly 8,000 people, it is the county seat, a proud distinction for any Texas town. Ask some residents and they'll tell you the city of Jasper is historically as well as geographically too near the likes of Vidor, Texas, a defiant Klan stronghold about fifty-five miles away. Folks who don't belong in Vidor, particularly black folks, steer clear of it. Listen to a few others and Jasper is a bastion of racial equality, a prosperous and fair place to raise kids, to set a good example.
Enlightened people who live within Jasper's city limits point to its obvious differences--their mayor, R. C. Horn, is black; prominent leaders of both races get along and work well together; and the census shows that the town itself is roughly made up of equal parts: Though it fluctuates, Jasper is approximately 45 percent African-American and about 48 percent Anglo, with most of the remaining percentage Hispanic.
It is a pretty place, strikingly clean, contemporary, but still connected to timeless traditions. Jasper has a rich history and attracts annual tourists for hugely profitable bass-fishing tournaments. A sprinkling of brand-name chain hotels, as well as quaint little lodging houses, lots of churches, tasty homemade food, and friendly people give Jasper a reputation for being a cut above most East Texas towns. It even has what proud residents jokingly call "the Mall," its huge twenty-four-hour Wal-Mart Supercenter, the biggest deal in town.
That the slow pace in Jasper does not hold much interest for its young people is something with which town leaders constantly struggle. There are five schools in the Jasper Independent School District, only one of them a high school. Teens who graduate from the high school usually head for higher academic ground or better-paying jobs at plants in larger Texas cities, like Beaumont or Port Arthur. A few others make the short commute to the southern end of the county to work at plants like the large paper mill in Evadale. Others make a decent living at oil refineries, mostly next door in Louisiana. Those who stay behind don't have many options, unless a relative owns a lumber mill. A lot of the other jobs pay only the minimum wage, or slightly better.
Routines reserved for weekdays--school, church events, and work--take place in a highly public fashion, in the open for all to participate in and judge. For the majority, the medium gait of life in Jasper is perfect--not too fast, not too slow. Residents take care of business and look out for each other. They do so without all the big-city hassles, without the rush and crush of traffic nightmares and rude citified behavior. Come six o'clock Friday night, things slow to a crawl; local streets empty as people rest and change their body clocks to reflect weekend time. By Saturday, many make the seventy-mile trek to Beaumont or twice that distance to faraway Houston, to break the monotony of Bud long necks, plate-sized chicken-fried steaks, and two- and three-star movies at the Twin Cinema. Given that there is little to do in Jasper on the weekend, others routinely grab Burger King specials or pack up their own food for picnic get-togethers at nearby Martin Dies Jr. State Park. Dozens more hitch up the boat or Jet Skis and head for Steinhagen Lake, Toledo Bend, or Sam Rayburn Reservoir, a beautiful body of water named after the native son who proudly served as one of the nation's most colorful Speakers of the House of Representatives and who is widely remembered for his dogged insistence that his colleagues vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Others, shunning big-city lights and nearby tourist attractions, love the quiet serenity and beauty of Jasper.
Like any small town, Jasper has its share of hotheads and lawbreakers, but for the most part, decent citizens want good, clean fun. Without any large nightclubs, a favorite Jasper pastime is an old-fashioned, blue-light house party with good music and close friends. Attendees can drink as much as they want in the privacy of someone's home and avoid the weekend crackdown on public alcohol consumption. Texas peace officers are rare but firm upholders of the state's hard-to-enforce open-container law: Don't get caught driving while taking a swig. Residents make sure, day or night, that whatever they are drinking behind the wheel in a brown paper bag is a Coke or cream soda.
Yet, liquor is plentiful on the outskirts of Jasper, a dry community located within a very wet county of more than 30,000 people. Many don't think it's a problem to serve alcohol at a private, invitation-only house party, even if they do live in a dry town. Some residents have even been known to bootleg--make their own barrel whiskey--an illegal activity that does not sit well with law-abiding neighbors. Jasper's pristine location in the Deep South Bible Belt provokes more than a few upright Christians to morally chastise their neighbors. One anonymous citizen posed the provocative question "If Jasper's really a dry town and folks can't buy liquor here, why are there so many alcoholics?"
On Saturday night, June 6, 1998, Jimmie Mays had the perfect reason to have one of those old-fashioned parties at his house. Besides his son's birthday, it was his twentieth wedding anniversary. James Byrd, Jr., a forty-nine year old unemployed, disabled former vacuum salesman, was among the guests who showed up at the large gray and white trailer home. Byrd was popular in Jasper, well known for his charisma and beautiful singing voice. In and out of minor legal scrapes since high school, Byrd was often described by family and friends as a man who never hurt anyone but himself. The divorced father of three was proud of his deserved reputation as a lover of life but equally ashamed of a very real drinking problem that sometimes left him lonely and alone.
Besides Byrd, more than forty people turned out to eat good food, drink good whiskey, sing, dance, and play cards and dominoes. At the end of a long week, many in the crowd were simply glad to be among friends and grateful that someone was in the mood to host a Saturday night house party. George "Billy" Mahathay was right in the thick of things.
Handsome, unmistakably a ladies' man, with curly jet-black hair and almond-colored eyes, Mahathay was something of a local fixture around town. The burly, friendly-looking owner of Billy's BBQ couldn't help but notice a slight difference in his boyhood friend. "Byrd's not his usual self," Mahathay would later testify, "quiet, not singing and dancing like he normally does."
Everyone at the lively get-together laughed, talked, drank, and toasted Mays and his wife. The weather was a tad warm, but pleasantly bearable. By tough Texas standards, the Mays' house party was a great success, a savory musical gumbo of blues, soul, hip-hop, jazz--a little something for everyone. Byrd half-enjoyed the music and wrestled with distant thoughts, maybe a personal dilemma. He seemed distracted but continued to drink and joke around. For whatever reason, Byrd did not belt out the tunes he was famous for.
Like a few others, Mahathay had had a bit too much to drink, but it was Saturday night and he was among friends. As the festive anniversary party came to a close, he chose a more sober friend, Samuel Williams, to give him a ride home. He smiled at the host and bid the Mays family goodnight.
The neat trailer emptied as the party ended. Williams and Mahathay left sometime between 1:30 and 1:45 a.m. on Sunday, June 7. It wasn't too far to Mahathay's house, almost around the corner from Jimmie Mays, but Mahathay was glad for the ride.
Right near Martin Luther King Boulevard, the tipsy passenger noticed James Byrd, Jr., on Bowie Street, near Mahathay's house. The men did not stop to give Byrd a ride; they believed he could make it on his own, as he had so many times before. Though Byrd owned an old car, one that had been out of commission a whole month, anyone who knew Byrd also knew that he was not afraid to walk anywhere in town. It was not uncommon for black people to walk in Jasper. Or white people, for that matter. Public transportation was almost nonexistent and there was no bus line or major taxi service. People paid small sums, if they had it, for neighbors and relatives to give them rides to necessary places. Or, they just walked.
When Billy Mahathay entered his residence, he was so sure Byrd could make it home that he never looked back. Byrd zigzagged down the road in a drunken stupor, taking step after wide step, a route he almost knew blindfolded, one that usually got him home in pitch-black darkness.
At about the same time the fun ended at the Mays home, a private party also wrapped up across town at the Timbers Apartments, upstairs in number 214, a tiny rented space on West Gibson Street, the main drag in Jasper.
Twenty-one-year-old Keisha Adkins was there, along with her former boyfriend, twenty-three-year-old John William King, a handsome local with brown hair and brown eyes, and a justified reputation as the hotheaded boy next door who can turn abruptly nasty.
Earlier in the evening, Adkins had run into King at the local Wal-Mart. Out of jail only a few months, the persuasive talker extended an invitation to his apartment. Flattered by renewed attention from King, Adkins examined his 5-foot-8-inch frame and saw that King had put on a little weight. Still, he looked good to Adkins as she mulled over the tempting proposition.
At about 10:30 p.m., shy, soft-spoken Keisha Adkins, a pale brunette, firmly knocked on King's door. The Timbers was a plain apartment complex; the wood-planked stairs and a small landing were barely large enough for two people.
Adkins discovered that King was not alone. Jailhouse buddy Lawrence Russell Brewer, a thirty-one-year-old convict from Sulphur Springs, Texas, had arrived in town only days before and was staying with King. Adkins knew Brewer was new to Jasper, and she looked him over and noted his physical attributes: He was small in stature, about 5 feet 6, 145 pounds, dark hair, and beady eyes. Remarkably muscular, he was a tough little man who looked as if he could take care of himself.
King and Brewer, a mutual admiration society of misfits, celebrated their victorious reunion, free men, at the same time, out in the world together. They started to drink cold Bud Lights and Coors Lights way before Adkins arrived. King playfully took off his shirt, another Saturday night ritual in June that in some neighborhoods went hand in hand with beer, white boys, and the pursuit of babes.
Not easily intimidated, Adkins studied King's drastically changed body--slightly potbellied and riddled with menacing tattoos. Adkins would later testify they did not offend her. The silly depiction of cartoon character Woody Woodpecker wearing a Klan robe was mildly humorous--if a person liked racist jokes. King's other tattoos were not so comical. One in particular, of a hanging black man, was neither a joke nor a cartoon. King did not openly discuss his radical views on race with Adkins, nor did he hide them. Tattooed arms, back, and torso spoke volumes. There was even a drawing of the Disney character Tinkerbell, located on King's genitals. It was the one tattoo King was ready to show Adkins privately.
While the ex-lovers renewed their relationship in the master bedroom, Brewer kept busy with loud music and the phone. He was on the lookout for King's current girlfriend. Brewer couldn't be happy that his role was relegated to watchdog, but that did not stop him from consuming more beer--beer the two convicted burglars had stolen earlier. Without money, there was not much else to do in Jasper on a Saturday night.
Kylie Greeney, King's very pregnant girlfriend, showed up at the front door. She banged on the door and forcefully demanded to be let in. While Adkins and King were together, just a few feet away, Brewer was left with strict orders not to let in the future mother of King's child. More afraid of King than of his girlfriend, Brewer faithfully guarded the front door. Upset and frustrated, Greeney finally gave up and stomped back down the steps and out of the complex.
Sometime after midnight, King's twenty-three-year-old roommate, Shawn Allen Berry, showed up. Berry, the only one of the three friends who held a regular job, had finished up work as manager of the Twin Cinema, locked the movie theater for the night, and returned to the one-bedroom apartment.
Highly regarded as someone who could hold his own in a fight, Berry always carried a sharp, straight blade. Though he was the shortest of the three friends--just 5 feet 5, 160 pounds--Berry earned respect as a scrappy young man, one with dependable transportation, good looks, and a well-documented adventurous spirit. He was more personable than King or Brewer, and had adequate social skills and a number of hobbies, including bull riding. Berry lived for the end of each hard week. He couldn't wait to grab a cold beer to let off a little Saturday night steam. As usual, Shawn Berry was ready to roll.
Before June 6, King and Adkins had talked only by phone; they were excited to see one another. Oblivious to the painfully small apartment and extra companions, any potential discomfort or embarrassment wasn't apparent when they emerged from King's bedroom. Adkins hadn't seen her old boyfriend in two long years.
King walked Adkins to her car. His impatient running buddies, eager to leave, brainstormed ideas on how to spend Saturday night in Jasper. Brewer wanted to try and find a girl who had earlier invited them to a party, where they might meet more girls. Berry, whose vehicle they rode around in, was restless, ready to go with the flow. But all did not go according to plan. Adkins was the only female the trio would get to see that Saturday night. Unfortunately for them, her presence at the Timbers Apartments helped to establish a crucial time line.
When all four walked out of King's apartment and concluded the quarantined party, Adkins believed the time was about 1:45 a.m., give or take a few minutes, on Sunday. Adkins got into her car, saw the three men climb into Berry's ashy-gray step-side pickup. She later testified as to the seat assignments, "Shawn is driving, Russell sits in the middle and Bill is on the right side."
From the Hardcover edition.