It was one of the most horrifying and unforgettable events in this country’s recent history. In the pre-dawn hours of June 7, 1998, a black man named James Byrd Jr. was walking home from a party in Jasper Texas, when he was stopped by three white men. John William King, Lawrence Russell Brewer and Shawn Berry were cruising and drinking beer, and they offered Byrd a ride home. He got in the bed of their pickup truck, but they didn’t take him home. They drove him to a desolate, wooded road east of town, chained him to the back of the truck by his ankles, and dragged him for more than three miles along the road.
By the time the men untied his body from the back of the truck, Byrd’s head and right arm had been severed. They ditched his torso at the gate of one of Jasper County’s oldest black cemeteries.
That morning, the county sheriff found a lighter with three interlocking Ks on the bloody trail on the road. It was the first of many signs that the brutal murder was an act of white supremacy.
John William King was the first of the three to go to trial. He was a member of the Confederate Knights of America, a small North Carolina faction of the Ku Klux Klan. He is decorated with tattoos of a black man lynched from a cross, a Confederate flag, a Nazi swastika, and the words “Aryan Pride.”
King was convicted in 1999 and sentenced to death. He was 24. He was the first white person in Texas to be sent to death row for the murder of an African-American since the state resumed capital punishment in the mid-1970s. Lawrence Brewer was also sentenced to die and Shawn Berry was given life in prison.
But now the son of James Byrd Jr. is fighting to prevent the execution of John William King, who has nearly exhausted his state appeals on the death penalty. Last Wednesday, Ross Byrd led a fast and prayer vigil outside the Walls Unit in Huntsville Texas, to fight for the life of his father’s killer. He was joined by longtime social activist Dick Gregory and Martin Luther King III, the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
- Ross Byrd, the only son of James Byrd Jr., the black man who was dragged to death in Jasper, Texas by a white supremacist in 1998. Ross was 19 years old and serving in the army when his father was killed. He was eventually given a medical discharge and now he is a hip-hop artist. He dedicated his first album to his father.
- Gloria Rubac, Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement, speaking from Houston