Ten years ago in Jasper, Texas, before dawn on June 7, 1998, three white men chained a black man to the back of their pickup truck and dragged him three miles to his death. This morning, the Houston Chronicle revisited the murder of James Byrd Jr. in a front-page story. The victim’s killers have been tried and sentenced, two assigned to death row and one to life in prison. Bloodstained evidence of the crime—the truck’s tires and rims and the heavy chain—is locked away in a security vault. The gray pickup rusts in an impound lot. Byrd’s family continues mourning his loss and cherishing his memory.
It horrifies me to type the words describing the murder, let alone to imagine the cruelty and agony of that night. Today I remember the shock I felt ten years ago when learning of this vicious killing in East Texas. As a writer of historical novels and plays set in the 19th century South, I have read and researched heartbreaking accounts of bondage and violence. I wanted to believe it was history. Then came this gruesome reminder of how bigotry persists, like an endemic disease.
Not long ago, I viewed a Civil War battle re-enactment in the piney woods of East Texas, an event interesting from a researcher’s and writer’s point of view. For many onlookers, it was a brief glimpse of history, of the camp life and battlefields of long ago. But the number of whites wearing t-shirts and caps emblazoned with the Confederate stars and bars and the volume of their cheers when gray trampled blue gave me pause.
I strive to keep an open mind, to keep prejudices in check, to understand that we are all shaped in various ways by our upbringing, always stopping short of condoning violence. Then, occasionally a new acquaintance, learning that I write, falls into a little pre-judging of me, assuming the imagination of a soft-spoken Southern white woman must run to romanticized tales of plantation mansions. But I refuse to forget who lived in the quarters. For that reason, I am drawn to the Southern gothic, to exploring that contradictory world of graciousness and greed, of compassion and suffering.
Included in Leslie Casimir’s Chronicle story about Jasper, Texas, are descriptions of the community today, of an alliance between black and white ministers, of interracial couples and offspring, of small-town poverty and glimmers of hope. In a way, it is a hopeful sign that ten years after the murder of James Byrd Jr., the crime retains its power to shock, and the murder weapon—a chain—is labeled infamous. Maya Angelou said: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” It is heartening to hear of courage in Jasper.