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James Byrd's 1998 Murder Reason We Can't Stop Race Conversation

by Todd A. Smith

 

Never Forget


If you grew up in Texas in the early to late 1990s, two racial incidents and two towns probably stand out in your mind.


The towns of Jasper, Texas and Vidor, Texas will remain in infamy for Texans of African descent of a certain age.


I can vividly remember hearing the news of the horrific dragging death of James Byrd, Jr. in Jasper, Texas in 1998.


I can remember driving home from work around midnight from my minimum wage job at Blockbuster Music in Houston fearful of what would happen to me alone on the dark Texas streets.


Although Houston is no Jasper, the thought that lynching was affectively back from the dead made me fear for my life.


I can remember in middle school hearing of the last African-American resident of Vidor, Texas being run out of town by the racist locals who wanted to keep their low-income housing project all-White.


In 1993, the federal government tried to remove the stigma of racism from Vidor, Texas by integrating government housing.


However, the town was not ready to live in harmony racially.

 

Vidor was once known as a “sundown city,” meaning no African-Americans should be out and about after sundown if they valued their safety.


I can remember an old White lady from Vidor, Texas asking the news reporter why the African-American man just wouldn’t stay with his own kind.


The African-American man finally gave in and moved to Beaumont, Texas.


Unfortunately, he could not find safety in the bigger Beaumont, Texas either.


He was killed shortly after relocating to Beaumont, Texas, which is 90 miles east of Houston.


Because of these infamous stories, I have never even visited Jasper, Texas, nor do I ever plan to.


Being fair to Jasper, Texas, local residents say the town took a bad wrap for the murder of Byrd.


Furthermore, the town has done a lot towards mending the racial divide since that infamous night in 1998.


But in my mind it will always be the racist town that took Byrd out like he was a dog.


Therefore, I choose to avoid the town at all costs.


Additionally, I try to avoid Vidor, Texas at all costs.


This objective is more difficult because of my Louisiana roots.


I am forced to drive through Vidor, Texas in order to visit relatives throughout the “Pelican State” and college friends from Southern University in Baton Rouge, La.


While a student at Southern in the late 1990s or early 2000s, I unexpectedly and unknowingly stopped at a fast food joint in Vidor, Texas.


The cold response that I received from the employees still sends chills down my spine.


The employees looked at me like I did not belong there and that I was not wanted in their establishment.


Although it had been about five to eight years since the town’s residents ran the African-American man out of town, I could still feel the hostility as much as I can feel the keyboard that I am typing this article on.


My point is the animosity was real and tangible, not a figment of my imagination.


In 2006, CNN’s Paula Zahn interviewed Vidor resident Peggy Fruge about the town’s race relations for the show, “Paula Zahn Now.”


Fruge, who is White, told Zahn, “I don’t mind being friends with (African-Americans), talking and stuff like that, but as far as mingling and eating with them, all that kind of stuff, that’s where I draw the line.”


To openly and unapologetically express such as racist point-of-view on national television shows the type of hate that can exist in some communities.


That presents an obvious danger for African-Americans.


The danger that African-Americans might encounter in racist towns, cities and neighborhoods is something that could possibly put our lives in grave danger.


That is why African-Americans refuse to stop talking about racism, past, present or future.


Although some White people hate to hear us play the so-called race card, not playing that race card or ignoring the realities of racism can result in death like it did for Byrd.


While in high school in the early 1990s, I had an English teacher berate me for a poem that I wrote about the trials and tribulations of African-American sharecroppers from the 1930s and 1940s.


She told me things had changed since then and I should basically let it ago.


Around five years later in my home state, three White men chained Byrd to a pick up truck not too far from Houston and dragged him three miles to his death until his body parts ripped up.


His head was separated from his body, and the street was filled with Byrd’s blood.


On Wednesday, the state of Texas executed John William King, one of three White men convicted of the gruesome murder of Byrd.


The state executed Lawrence Russell Brewer for Byrd’s murder in 2011.


Shawn Allen Berry is currently serving a life sentence, with the possibility of parole in 2038, for Byrd’s murder.


Byrd’s death was something that we read about during Black History Month.


Byrd’s death was something that was probably commonplace in 1898.


A horrific lynching was not supposed to happen that close to the 21st century.


Racism was supposed to be something of the past.


We were almost to the post-racial America that people thought they had realized with the election of former President Barack Obama 10 years after the murder of Byrd.


Like my English teacher falsely told me five years earlier, the days of oppression for African-Americans was over and I should basically drop the subject.


That was easy for her to say as a White woman.


However, ignoring racism could cost an African-American man his life or livelihood.


That is why African-Americans will never forget their history.


That is why African-Americans will always speak out against racism, oppression and discrimination.


And that is why we will never forget martyrs like Byrd.


Twenty-one years later, Byrd’s death still touches the emotions of people, Black or White.


And over two decades later, America still remains divided along racial lines.


That’s why we continue to talk about race.


And that is why we can never forget our past.


We cannot forget our past because the present is so much like the past.

This article was published on Friday 26 April, 2019.
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