Updated at 9 p.m. ET
Twenty-one years ago, in the east Texas town of Jasper, 49-year-old James Byrd Jr. was walking home late on a Saturday night when three white men in a pickup truck pulled up beside him. The African American man was well-known and well-liked in the town of Jasper. And when the driver, Shawn Berry, offered to give Byrd a ride, Byrd hopped in — after all, he'd known the driver most of his life.
What happened next shocked the conscience of the town, the nation and the entire world.
On Wednesday evening, John William King was executed at the Huntsville Prison in Huntsville, Texas, for his role in the gruesome and racist murder of James Byrd Jr. in the summer of 1998.
A stint in prison and a murder
Although John "Bill" King grew up in a loving home in Jasper, his friends, family and clergy say he was changed by a stint in the George Beto Unit, a maximum security prison where he'd been sent for stealing. There he met and befriended Lawrence Russell Brewer, a known white supremacist.
Once released, King and Brewer returned to King's hometown as hardened, racist criminals on the prowl for black blood. Amiable and disabled, James Byrd Jr. just happened to be walking home to his apartment that early Sunday morning on June 7, 1998. King's friend, Shawn Berry, was ferrying King and Brewer around in his truck and partying with them when they spotted Byrd. They pulled up next to Byrd and offered to give him a ride. Byrd knew the driver, Berry, well enough to accept the offer. It was a fatal mistake.
Instead of taking him home, they took him to a small clearing out in the woods. After offering him a drink, Brewer and King set upon Byrd, beating him, taunting him, urinating on him. They used a baseball bat. Finally, they chained him by the ankles to the back of the truck. King got in the driver's seat and they dragged Byrd down a deserted rural road. After 3 miles they stopped, picked up the pieces of what was left of Byrd's body and dumped them in front of a nearby African American church to be found later that Sunday morning.
Jasper, with a population of about 8,000, is almost equally divided between black and white residents and is religiously devout. The news of Byrd's death rippled through the black community, with many finding out after Sunday services. The shock and horror spread outward from those Baptist churches across the nation. Eventually the murder was international news.
Shawn Berry, the driver of the vehicle, was sentenced to life in prison. Brewer was given the death penalty and was executed at Huntsville Prison on Sept. 21, 2011.
In 2001, then-Gov. Rick Perry signed into law the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act in Texas. George Bush as governor had originally opposed the bill and declined to attend Byrd's funeral, citing a previous commitment. But after Bush was elected president in 2000, Perry stepped in to finish Bush's term and signed the hate crime legislation into Texas law. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed into federal law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, connecting Byrd and Shepard, who was tortured and murdered in Wyoming a few months after Byrd.
For Jasper, the reaction to the murder and trial at first tended to divide along racial lines. For whites, and for many in the town's leadership, there was plenty of denial and a tendency to blame the media for making them look bad.
But that went only so far. The defendants were found guilty and sentenced and the media left town. Jasper was left with its reputation as a hateful place.
Eventually, town boosters learned that, in order to fight the outside perception that Jasper was an unsafe and unfriendly place, they had to address the elephant in the room and acknowledge racial divisions. And in doing so, they have been able to make some progress in attracting new tech business in recent years. But it has taken two decades.
The region's past also comes into play. This part of east Texas had a long history of slavery and racial violence in the aftermath of Reconstruction. Lynchings here were as prevalent as in the worst parts of the Deep South, and a legacy of white supremacy endures at the margins.
Jasper's African American community now says that the past must not be forgotten. A bench commemorating Byrd's life was installed next to the county courthouse last year by The Byrd Foundation for Racial Healing. But Byrd's sister Louvon Byrd says the bench has already been moved to a less prominent location. What is to be remembered and what's to be forgotten usually depends on who's doing the remembering and who's writing the history.
Byrd's only son, Ross, has been active in opposing the death penalty for his father's killers, citing his Christian faith.
And, as they did at Brewer's execution eight years ago, James Byrd Jr.'s sisters witnessed John William King's execution Wednesday evening.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Twenty-one years ago, in the East Texas town of Jasper, a black man, James Byrd Jr., was murdered by three white supremacists. Byrd was kidnapped while walking home in the early morning hours of June 7, and what happened next shocked the conscience of the nation - indeed, really, the world. This afternoon, one of the men responsible for that horrific violence, John William King, is scheduled to be executed by the state of Texas. NPR's Wade Goodwyn covered this story back in 1998 and covered the subsequent trials. He's here with us.
WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: And I do want to give people just a moment here to step away if they don't want to hear what I'm sure will be some graphic details that could upset some people. But could you take us back to 1998 and when this happened?
GOODWYN: Yes. What happened was three men, white men driving around in a pickup truck late on a Saturday night looking for trouble, saw a 49-year-old African American man walking home. They stopped and offered him a ride. And James Byrd Jr. knew the man behind the wheel, who was Shawn Berry, and Berry invited him to get in, and they say they took him - they'd take him home, and so Byrd did.
But they didn't take him home, and they took him out to the woods. I think Byrd thought they were going to go have a drink together. But they all got out, and eventually, they attacked Byrd. They beat him with a baseball bat. They taunted him. They urinated on him and, finally, chained him by his ankles to the back of that truck and drug Byrd three miles down a paved road, until he was dead. And then they got out, gathered up a few of the body parts and dumped those in front of an African American church, where he was found later that Sunday morning.
Now, you know, Jasper's a very religious East Texas town, which meant that much of the black population were worshipping in their various churches around the town when the news of what had happened spread. And as you can imagine, it tore through that black community like wildfire, and people were devastated; they were horrified.
GREENE: How quickly did they catch the men who did this?
GOODWYN: Pretty quickly. The FBI was called in, the Texas Rangers, and law enforcement caught 23-year-old Sherry Bawn (ph) and John William King and 31-year-old Russell Brewer quickly; they'd left behind evidence that pointed right to them - a wrench that had Berry's name on it, lighter that had King's prison nickname on it. And King and Brewer had met in prison, and they were avowed white supremacists, and King had had racist tats all over his body, including one of a black man hanging from a tree.
King and Brewer, they were the main perpetrators, and they got sentenced to death. Berry testified for the state; he got life in prison. And Russell was executed eight years ago, and the day before he went to the chamber, he said he'd had no regrets, and if he was given the chance, he'd do it all over again. But today it's Bill King's turn to die.
GREENE: What has happened in this community over these two decades since then?
GOODWYN: Well, in the white community, at first, there was a lot of denial - blaming the media for making them look bad. But, you know, after a while, the media went away, and Jasper was still left with the reputation of being a hateful place, and that affected everything - businesses wouldn't move there; if you owned a house and you wanted to leave, you had a hard time selling it. Saying, you know, we're really not like that, just didn't matter.
You know, for the last 20 years, Jasper's had this crime hanging over its head. But that's also forced the white community there to look in the mirror in a way that most white communities haven't had to. And of course, not everyone's been willing to look. You know, lynchings here were as prevalent as the worst parts of the Deep South, and that legacy of white supremacy endures.
GREENE: NPR's Wade Goodwyn.
Wade, thank you so much.
GOODWYN: You're quite welcome.
GREENE: He covered the kidnapping and dragging death of James Byrd Jr. and the subsequent murder trials. Forty-four-year-old John William King is scheduled to be executed in Huntsville, Texas, this evening at 6 p.m. Central time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.