Can a community heal from a hate crime?

I was surprised when I read an April 21 article from Fox Chicago, Racist who dragged black man behind truck will be executed this week. (It looks to be a reprint used in several publications.) I expected a bland short piece giving a brief biased synopsis of the 1998 murder of James Byrd Jr. and minimal details of the impending execution of one of his murderers. Instead, the piece starts with a story of how that murder has shaped people’s view of the town by telling how a tech company questioned opening a center there specifically because of the murder that took place 21 years ago.

It stood out to me that the murderer’s name isn’t even mentioned until the 7th paragraph.

The article is about more than what the headline implies. It is about the longstanding toll on the town that was host to one of the most gruesome hate crimes in recent history. It talks about the white townspeople’s wish to move on, proclaiming “not all Jasper residents.” (A quick Google search shows the tech company was convinced and still plans on opening shop in Jasper.) The current mayor is quoted as saying “we’ve just tried to move on.” The article also talks about how many members of the black community have seen and experienced race relations in the town since Byrd’s murder – that punishing the murderers did not end the racism in the community nor help the community heal from the tragedy. Everyone agrees, though, that they’ve faced some damning stereotypes ever since the murder, and it destroyed their economy.

I then read this article, which shows how the overall community response to Byrd’s murder is seen by some as people sticking their heads in the sand, as if pretending it didn’t happen. Maybe they let apathy or fear keep them inside when both the KKK and New Black Panthers marched in town (though local faith leaders did rally). In recent years, black city officials were fired or ousted during re-election, and during those elections “the recall effort was marred by racial slurs.” Half of Jasper is African-American, yet 34% of the black community lives below the poverty line. City Councilor Rashad Lewis tried to institute a day to honor Boyd, but it didn’t pass.

But positive actions have been taken. In 2001, then-Gov. Rick Perry signed the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, creating harsher penalties for crimes committed on the basis of race, religion, age, gender, disability, national origin, or sexual orientation. In 2009, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

In 1999, Byrd’s relatives worked to institute change in the minds and hearts of their community members. They created the Byrd Foundation for Racial Healing, which has the motto “Stop the Hate…Educate.” The foundation’s goals are to provide public enlightenment and education on matters regarding cultural diversity, to build a multicultural center in Jasper to promote the advancement of racial healing through education, to raise awareness on the consequences of racial hatred, and to reduce racially-motivated hate crimes.

Here, you can see the projects and initiatives the Byrd Foundation is engaged in to affect change in their community. They also have a challenge for us all to “Be The Change” you would like to see in society. In their Diversity Challenge, they call on us to choose one or more activity and share via social media:  

  1. Act as an agent for change by taking a stand when you encounter racism & etc
  2. Converse with someone of a different culture and share your experiences
  3. Take time to explore different cultures via music, research, food, dance & etc.

And, if you share, use the hashtags: #diversitychallenge #thebyrdfoundationforracialhealing #bethechange #act

All three perpetrators had spent time in prison prior to their hateful act. The violent racist who was the instigator for Byrd’s murder, John William King, is supposed to be put to death on Wednesday. And, it’s not likely he’ll receive a stay of execution. His execution follows that of Lawrence Russell Brewer, another participant in this hate crime, who was executed in 2011. Shawn Allen Berry is the third murderer (whose truck was used in the crime); he was sentenced to life in prison and won’t be eligible for parole until 2038, at the age of 63.

For most of my life I have been against the death penalty – too much error in the injustice system. But, in cases like this, I hope that King’s death will bring some bit of closure to Byrd’s family and allow for true healing to begin in Jasper, TX.

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