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'A Death In Texas: A Story Of Race, Murder and a Small Town’s Struggle for Redemption' by Dina Temple-Raston

Book seeks to fathom racist murder in Texas

Sunday, January 13, 2002

By By Elizabeth Bennett


A Death In Texas: A Story Of Race, Murder and a Small Town’s Struggle for Redemption

By Dina Temple-Raston



Racial hatred is alive and well in Texas, as journalist Dina Temple-Raston makes clear in this in-depth exploration of a story that shocked the world:

In June 1998, the broken body of 49-year-old James Byrd was discovered near the gate of one of Jasper’s oldest black cemeteries. The head and one arm were missing, ripped off by the jagged edge of a roadside culvert while Byrd -- apparently still alive -- was chained to a pickup truck and dragged three miles by three young white men.

The grisly act attracted reporters from all over the globe who rushed to Jasper to cover the story. Temple-Raston, a CNN producer, arrived in Jasper several months after the murder.

During the next two years she talked to dozens of people of both races and learned everything she could about the town and its history. Law enforcement in Jasper had “a long-standing reputation for prejudice,” she discovered.

“Black residents complained that they were detained for imaginary driving violations more often than whites. ... Most of all, they vividly recalled the days in which police chief Alton Wright would stop blacks in their cars just to beat them up. Many of his victims were handcuffed when they were beaten.”

A lot had changed for the better in Jasper by 1998, thanks partly to the efforts of Jasper County Sheriff Billy Rowles, who comes across as a heroic figure in the book. An enlightened man determined to bring Byrd’s three murderers to justice, Rowles managed to keep order in Jasper when hooded Klansmen and belligerent Black Panthers poured into town.

And after the trials were over, resulting in the death penalty for convicted killers Bill King and Russell Brewer and life in prison for Shawn Berry, bumper stickers appeared on trucks all over town saying “Thank you, Billy Rowles, for being our sheriff.”

But attitudes about race change slowly in small towns in East Texas, and sometimes it takes an outsider like Temple-Raston to point out obvious inequities. At Byrd’s funeral, for instance, she noticed that while all the gathered dignitaries “talked about reconciliation and harmony,” they neglected to note that Byrd was buried on the black side of the Jasper City Cemetery, still segregated in 1998.

Most of the white community in Jasper believed the murder was an aberration and had nothing to do with the town itself, Temple-Raston discovered. But whites felt guilty, “knowing the outside world was watching and judging them,” and extraordinary things started happening.

Whites started opening doors for blacks, and blacks and whites began spontaneously hugging each other in stores all over town. More than 1,000 citizens attended a prayer vigil on Courthouse Square and called for reconciliation, and dozens of people confessed to Rowles that they felt bad “for using the N-word.”

Changes were short-lived, however. When the media left town, “the small courtesies, the racial hypersensitivity that emerged right after the murder, began to fade,” writes Temple-Raston.

“The blacks really took advantage of us,” a prominent white citizen told her. ... They knew we felt bad about what had happened [and] ... got uppity.”

The author heard a different story from blacks. “The saddest thing was that for a while we actually thought this would stick, that Jasper would suddenly rush into the 21st century,” a black beauty-shop owner said. “Then it stopped.”

Another black woman told the author: “We integrate when people are watching. Now that the story is over ... we segregate, just like we was.”

There’s much more here that helps explain the horrendous hate crime.

Temple-Raston paints a portrait of life in a small town in decline -- a once modestly prosperous timber town with boarded up storefronts, no jobs and no prospects. With little to do, young people like King and Berry got bored, dropped out of high school and landed in jail for burglary.

King, the more aggressive of the two, would end up in prison several years later, where he met Brewer, seven years older, and the two would join the Confederate Knights, an offshoot of a Ku Klux Klan group that got most of its members from prison or poor towns like Jasper.

The author also notes that Jasper is only an hour’s drive from Vidor, Texas, the capital of Klan country, where until the early 1990s one could still see signs warning: blacks to “get out of town after dark.”

She has put together all the pieces of this truly gothic tale. It helps expose the lingering effects of racism in America, and the challenges of finding answers to the complications of hate and prejudice.

Elizabeth Bennett is a free-lance writer in Houston.

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