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James Byrd Murder Symbolizes Need to Remember History

by Todd A. Smith

Don’t Forget The Past

 

            We live in a society that is constantly encouraging African Americans to not remember history.

            We are told that the Civil Rights era is ancient history and rehashing that era will only divide Americans even further along racial lines.  Films like the documentary “Freedom Riders,” based on those valiant and unsung civil rights icons like John Lewis who integrated interstate buses, are criticized by all races for opening old wounds.  However, one only needs to look to Jasper, Texas 13 years ago to see what happens when we do not remember history.

            In 1998, James Byrd, an African American, was chained to a pickup truck by three White Jasper residents and dragged until his body was dismembered in one of the most gruesome hate crimes in American history.  On Tuesday, a Texas district judge set Sept. 21 as the execution date for Lawrence Russell Brewer, one of the three convicted in Byrd’s death.

            Co-conspirator John William King was also sentenced to lethal injection, but his case is still currently in the court system on appeal.  Shawn Berry, the third conspirator, was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the heinous murder.

            That one hateful crime in East Texas 13 years ago reminded Americans just how far we had really come in the arena of race relations in this country.  To many Americans, the 1950s and 1960s seems like ancient history, but in actuality, racism remains as real today in many parts of the country as it was in the days of the Freedom Riders.

            Sure, we have made tremendous strides in racial harmony and unity, but the Byrd murder is a reminder of how ugly America can become if we do not remember history.

            “My grandbaby asked a question—she didn’t understand how this could happen,” said Byrd’s sister Betty Boatner in 2008.  “She couldn’t hardly believe it.  She started crying so I had to fight back tears.  That is why we can’t just let this become a faint memory.  This horrible death took place in Jasper, Texas and we need to remind people of that, talk about it, understand it and try and prevent it from happening again.”

            For that precise reason—so it will not happen again—we need to remember history and honor those who lost their lives simply because of the color of their skin. 

            Younger generations of Americans, like Boatner’s daughter, do not live in an era where racism is overt but it very well exists and the fact that Americans were reminded Tuesday of Byrd’s brutal murder by racists lets us know that there are still some with the same mentality as the people who tried to kill the Freedom Riders 50 years ago.

            “It’s just one of those things I didn’t want to go through again,” said former Jasper Country Sherriff Billy Rowles.  “That thing really hurt our community.  We got a big wound out of it…People in Jasper, both Black and White, just wish everybody would forget about it and let it go.”

            In reality, it is only natural to want to forget the negative experiences in one’s past but to remember history is to make sure that future Americans will not make the same mistakes as Brewer, King and Berry and guarantee that the sins of yesterday will remain a part of this nation’s history and not its future.

Smith is publisher of Regal Black Men's Magazine, a publication dedicated to the African American community.

This article was published on Thursday 02 June, 2011.
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