James Byrd, Jr. (May 2, 1949 – June 7, 1998) was born in Beaumont, Texas, one of nine children, to Stella (1925 – October 7, 2010) and James Byrd, Sr. (born 1924). He was an African-American who was murdered by three men, of whom at least two were white supremacists, in Jasper, Texas, on June 7, 1998. Shawn Berry, Lawrence Russell Brewer, and John King dragged Byrd for three miles behind a pick-up truck along an asphalt road. Byrd, who remained conscious throughout most of the ordeal, was killed when his body hit the edge of a culvert, severing his right arm and head. The murderers drove on for another mile before dumping his torso in front of an African-American cemetery in Jasper. Byrd’s lynching-by-dragging gave impetus to passage of a Texas hate crimes law. It later led to the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, commonly known as the Matthew Shepard Act, which passed on October 22, 2009, and which President Barack Obama signed into law on October 28, 2009.
Lawrence Russell Brewer was executed by lethal injection for this crime by the state of Texas on September 21, 2011. King remains on Texas’ death row while appeals are pending, while Berry was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Numerous aspects of the Byrd murder echo lynching traditions. These include mutilation or decapitation and revelry, such as a barbecue or a picnic, either during or after a lynching. Byrd’s murder was strongly condemned by Jesse Jackson and the Martin Luther King Center as an act of vicious racism and focused national attention on the prevalence of white supremacist prison gangs.
The victim’s family created the James Byrd Foundation for Racial Healing after his death. Basketball star Dennis Rodman paid their funeral expenses and gave Byrd’s family $25,000. Fight promoter Don King gave Byrd’s children $100,000 to be put towards their education expenses.
In 1999 Chantal Akerman, inspired by the literary works of William Faulkner, set out to make a film about the beauty of the American South. However, after arriving on location (in Jasper, Texas) and learning of the brutal racist murder, she changed her focus. Akerman made Sud (French for “South”) a meditation on the events surrounding the crime and the history of racial violence in the United States. In 2003, a movie about the crime, titled Jasper, Texas, was produced and aired on Showtime. The same year, a documentary named Two Towns of Jasper, made by filmmakers Marco Williams and Whitney Dow, premiered on PBS’s P.O.V. series. In 2008, first time director and activist Ricky Jason and his wife Sharon Jason released the film “Byrd: The Life And Tragic Death of James Byrd Jr.” as a tribute to Byrd, which featured interviews from Byrd’s children, Dick Gregory, Susan Sarandon, Martin Luther III, Sister Helen Prejean, Congresswoman Maxine Waters and other notables.