Jasper learns lessons of race hate

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE TOWN of Jasper will start to breathe again today, as its traumatic year in the spotlight draws to a close. The murder of a black man, dragged to his death behind a pick-up truck, has focused attention on white race hatred and made the town into a symbol of larger national problems.

John William King, found guilty on Tuesday of killing James Byrd in June last year, will be sentenced today and the death penalty is an option.

In court yesterday, Kingstared blankly ahead. Wearing a bullet-proof vest and a turtleneck to hide Nazi SS tattoos, he was flanked by Texas Rangers in their customary stetsons.

There were journalists from across the US, and security was tight to stop any demonstrations of the type that have shocked Jasper over the past year. The Ku-Klux-Klan and other white supremacist groups have used the trial to gain publicity. In response, black groups such as the New Black Panthers have staged counter-demonstrations, raising fears that they would clash in the courthouse square.

If Mr King is sentenced to death, there will be few tears shed for him in Jasper. Mr Byrd's sister, Stella Bromley, said yesterday that the killer should receive the most severe penalty allowed by the law: "If that is the death penalty, then I welcome it."

Customers in June Bug's Club and Grill, one of the few places alcohol is sold locally, said they hoped Mr King would get the death penalty, and regretted the image that the town had acquired. "This is not a hate community," said Ray Parton, who works for the local radio station.

The Rev Jesse Jackson, a black community leader, said: "Justice has been served and it closes one chapter in this tragic story." But he opposed the death penalty: "Killing will not stop race supremacists. Capital punishment is not a deterrent for crimes such as those committed by Mr King, and it will not be a deterrent."

Two more suspects, Shawn Berry and Lawrence Russell Brewer, will go on trial shortly.

With Mr King, they were said to have planned to set up a local chapter of a racist group, the Confederate Knights of America. The horrifying manner of Mr Byrd's killing has focused America's attention on racism.

He was picked up while walking down a country road and, according to prosecutors, was beaten up and chained to the back of the truck. Still alive, he was dragged for miles. His head and arm were torn from his body, and his remains were dumped at the gates of the town cemetery.

Jasper, population 8,000, is mixed, with a black mayor and a white sheriff. Over the past year, the town has tried to learn from the murder, and to break down some of the barriers of race. There have been prayer vigils, and meetings to discuss the problems of racism.

The townspeople were relieved by the verdict. "You can't put up with this stuff, you can't tolerate it," said the Jasper County District Attorney, Guy James Gray.

Civil rights activists want to use the incident to press for tougher penalties against "hate" crimes involving race, gender, sexual orientation or religion.

Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, said: "The verdict in the James Byrd trial is a sad victory ... Hate is still a very destructive force in America and requires the strongest sanctions and penalties that the law can provide."