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The Story of a Dragging in Jasper, Texas

Written by Joyce KingAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Joyce King

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On Sale: November 30, 2011
Pages: 240 | ISBN: 978-0-307-80767-0
Published by : Anchor Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

On June 7, 1998, James Byrd, Jr., a forty-nine-year-old black man, was dragged to his death while chained to the back of a pickup truck driven by three young white men. It happened just outside of Jasper, a sleepy East Texas logging town that, within twenty-four hours of the discovery of the murder, would be inextricably linked in the nation’s imagination to an exceptionally brutal, modern-day lynching.

In this superbly written examination of the murder and its aftermath, award-winning journalist Joyce King brings us on a journey that begins at the crime scene and extends into the minds of the young men who so casually ended a man’s life. She takes us inside the prison in which two of them met for the first time, and she shows how it played a major role in shaping their attitudes—racial and otherwise. The result is a deeply engrossing psychological portrait of the accused and a powerful indictment of the American prison system’s ability to reform criminals. Finally, King writes with candor and clarity about how the events of that fateful night have affected her—as a black woman, a native Texan, and a journalist given the agonizing assignment of covering the trials of all three defendants. More than a spectacular true-crime debut, Hate Crime is a breathtaking work of reportage and a searing look at how the question of race continues to shape life in America.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

One

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.
Joyce King|Author Q&A

About Joyce King

Joyce King - Hate Crime
A former reporter and anchor for a CBS radio affiliate, Joyce King is an award-winning twenty-year broadcast veteran. She also writes guest columns and opinion pieces for USA Today, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Dallas Morning News. This is her first book. She lives in Dallas.

Author Q&A

A Q&A with Joyce King, author of Hate Crime

Q. HATE CRIME tells the horrific, yet captivating story of the dragging death of James Byrd, Jr. in 1998. Tell me what has changed over the last 4 years since this crime took place?

A. This question has answers on several levels. First, in Jasper itself, I believe a hard lesson has been learned. A lot of residents thought such an idyllic little community could never have provided the location for such an unspeakable crime. They thought race relations were okay, but discovered a lot of people are still consumed by the past.

Second, at the state level, the Byrd murder was a catalyst of sorts to reignite a much-avoided discussion on hate-crime legislation. Reborn as The James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act, Governor Rick Perry, a Republican, signed the bill into law in May 2001. That's a huge change, especially when you consider his predecessor, George W. Bush, refused to support the measure as it was written. It took six years to push this legislation through. I believe this horrible crime, and the justice served afterward, promoted more positive racial dialogue that made it a little easier to get the conservative support necessary to win its passage.

And finally, on a national and international level, our world has changed dramatically in the last four years, particularly in the past year. Sadly, Americans are learning, as other world citizens understand, that hatred is powerful. Whether it is hatred for a man because his skin color is different, or, hatred of a nation because viewpoints are not the same, the outcome can be painfully similar: Hatred hurts all.


Q. Being from the south, you know firsthand what the racial climate is like. Have things changed for the better or for the worse since the crime was committed? Since the trial?

A.
Since the June '98 dragging, some things feel as if they're never going to change. Racial progress can sometimes produce a Catch-22 atmosphere–with the remarkable progress of the Civil Rights Movement, and the inclusion of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday as testamonials. But there is also that undercurrent of “unfinished business” that will require an honest dialogue. I believe this national communication might render blacks and whites more kin than is comfortable. Since the last trial, I think the justice delivered in this case may have fueled an ever-present hope that it's not too late to go back and provide closure in cases, (because of the explosive timeframe) justice was absent. Certainly, things are better today, but we all have a long way to go. Blacks and whites are in a marriage, that God, in a humor constantly challenged, has forever bound together. No manmade power can separate us.


Q. What could you tell us about meeting the 3 offenders face-to-face?

A. Perhaps the most chilling vis-a-vis encounters with the accused occurred the first time I saw John William King being escorted, shackled across the courthouse lawn. Nothing had prepared me for such a polite-looking hatred. Day after day in the three separate trials of King, Brewer, and Berry, the most difficult thing was hearing gruesome testimony and being able to reach out and touch those responsible. I was told not to even bother trying to get a jailhouse interview with King since he'd never subject himself to answer questions “from a black woman.” People were always asking me about the mindset of the trio, and what made them click. Those same people were always disappointed at the lack of depth, intelligence, and education the defendants possessed, or didn't. If these young men were such superior criminals, why were they captured less than 24 hours after the crime? There was no “mastermind” at work here. Beyond the three culprits, it was Shawn Berry's brother, Louis, who gave me my greatest insight into their beer-and-backroads lifestyle. In our one-hour chat, (as the jury deliberated his brother's guilt or innocence) I learned that Louis was very interchangeable with Shawn. They were one and the same.


Q. Tell me more about the insight Louis gave you.

A. Louis really told me some personal things about the clique of friends that included King, Brewer, Shawn, himself, Tommy Faulk, and a handful of others. They all had similar country-boy personalities–lived too hard, too fast, and liked drinking beer together. There wasn't a whole lot to do in Jasper on the weekends. Yet, Louis was also, as I say in book, “tragically poetic.” There was something very sweet about him, but also something that might be a little dangerous.


Q. You describe what the George Beto Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice looks like as you drive up and go inside, you also describe the high security. Do you think the prison system is a major contributor to the events that led to the tragedy? What do you think can be done to change it?

A. I don't believe the prison system, per se, is a major contributor to the events that specifically led to June 7th. However, like several components in this case, it did play a role, just as another common denominator that link the three men. All were high school dropouts. Coincidence? I don't think so. But does prison need more improvements? Definitely. One change that would require little cash involves educating the public. In my research, I discovered that most people don't have a clue about life in prison and how it can shape racial attitudes. Some inmates are able to drop survivor beliefs adopted in prison once released. Others, like King and Brewer, never sucessfully let it go when they are deposited back into the "free world." We must be careful to not allow the prison system in this country to shoulder all the blame for the ongoing racial strife that exists, or the racist gangs that organize there, and are on the rise. Prison does not begin to explain, or account for racial crimes committed in the workplace, on college campuses, or at places of worship by people who have never been locked up! Everyone in prison, from warden to inmate, talked about a lack of respect. That's also the key in the free world as well.


Q. What made you think to place yourself, the narrator, in the story and were you worried that it wouldn't work?

A. Initially, I started writing with myself as the storyteller only, but all the passion in me was saying, "How can I possibly ignore the way I feel about this case and the impact it has had on me?" With that as a starting point, I was never afraid that it wouldn't work. I was, and am confident that when given their chance, the reading public will not only see themselves in the ordinary working person I am, but they will also be able to relate this experience to extraordinary circumstances we all face in life, and how we choose to rise to meet those challenges. I didn't happen to Jasper; it happened to me.


Q. What did you hope to accomplish by writing HATE CRIME?

A.
What I hoped to accomplish when I began this journey at the end of 1999, after the third trial, was to have world citizens, literally, walk a country mile in my shoes. To see this incredibly small town, nestled away in these thick woods, among a history of racial violence perpetrated, mostly, against black men. I wanted to accomplish the connection that blacks and whites have so much more in common, than not. At the same time, I didn't want to paint a rosy, all-is-racially-healed portrait that would've given the impression that racism in East Texas has been cured. Justice was never denied, nor delayed in this case, which must, somehow be viewed as a model for those larger cities that remain unsuccessful in the delivery of justice. I think this book accomplishes what I hoped–to give brave Jasperites who did take a stand vindication. After all, the town didn't drag James Byrd, Jr. Three young white men did.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“A gripping account of an unimaginably brutal murder . . . [and] a lesson in how to look racism in the eye and not blink.” —O, The Oprah Magazine

“[A]chieves its greatest possible goal: setting the event in history as a disturbing record of continued American racism.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“[A] remarkable balance of candor, clarity and feeling.” —Los Angeles Times

[S]hows readers a thriving subculture of hatred few of us will ever encounter.” —Austin American-Statesman

“[R]iveting. . . . Exceptional reporting takes the reader behind the headlines and through each aspect of this emotionally wrenching case.” —Arizona Daily Star

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