We all know the reason Jasper, Texas is famous... Butterflies! Oh wait, no, sorry. That's from Bizarro World, where the answer isn't "hate crimes and murder." It's one of those East Texas towns, like Vidor, that the rest of the state keeps waiting for someone to make a horror movie about. Barring that, something where Matthew McConaughey plays an idealistic lawyer.
On this day in 1998, 49-year-old James Byrd Jr. accepted a ride home from Shawn Berry, Lawrence Russell Brewer, and John King. Instead of home, they drove him to a remote location, beat him, pissed on him, and then decided to drag him behind their pickup truck, whereupon a collision with a culvert tore off Byrd's right arm and head. Until then he had been conscious throughout this latter-day lynching; parts of Byrd's body were found in 81 separate locations.
The attack was racially motivated, with King and Brewer being well-known white supremacists. After the murder King wrote, "Regardless of the outcome of this, we have made history. Death before dishonor. Sieg Heil!"
Berry was sentenced to life in prison. King is still waiting out death-row appeals. Brewer was executed by lethal injection in 2011. Just to be a dick one last time, he ordered a huge last meal and ate none of it, prompting the state of Texas to discontinue the practice.
In 2009 Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which added sexual orientation to the previous hate-crime law in honor of Shepard, the Wyoming man who was killed because he was gay, as well as expanding federal law enforcement's ability and resources to track and investigate hate crimes.
Over the years, there have been a fair amount of musical tributes to James Byrd Jr. in honor of the horror he endured, and today we spin them for you. Listen, and please remember that there are still plenty of shitheads in the world who will brutally murder a man over something like the color of his skin. We need to be working on that not happening anymore.
Matthew Mayfield, "Still Alive" To set the tone of what I just said, I'm going to pull from all kinds of different musical genres. Matthew Mayfield just couldn't get the murder of Byrd out of his head. The sheer disgust Mayfield felt towards the actions of Byrd's killers just pours out in this wave of poisoned words, and it's deeply unsettling music to listen to. "String him up behind the truck, forty miles an hour, run it red so the nigger can feel your white power..." Never has the mindless animal rage of racism been laid more bare, or shown to be more misplaced and sad.
E.S.G., "Realest Rhymin'" Of course, it's Texas, and most of the tributes and shout-outs to Byrd are going to come from the rap community. Our own E.S.G. weighed in on the incident a year after it happened on Shinin' n' Grindin', with threats against the KKK and white supremacists coming hard and heavy in this track.
The Famine, "The New Hell" Rule 66 of the Internet states that given enough time every murder will eventually inspire a death metal song. The Famine out of Arlington did their part in 2010 in "The New Hell." The song is a deep stab against complacency masquerading as decency down here ion the Bible Belt, and specifically holds up James Byrd's murder as proof that people would rather pat themselves on the back for being pious rather than admit things like Byrd's lynching exist.
Ryan Bingham, "I Heard 'Em Say" Another one of our own (at least for a while) is hard-edged country star Ryan Bingham. He penned "I Heard 'Em Say" about the racially charged atmosphere in East Texas after Byrd's murder for last year's Tomorrowland. He doesn't mention Byrd by name, but does talk about a poor black friend being dragged to death while being tied up and forced to watch.
Will Smith, "Tell Me Why" Here's the thing about incidents like the death of James Byrd and Matthew Shepard and who knows how many other tragedies. At some point the rest of us who don't feel the need to kill and cause mayhem for the most pointless of reasons are going to start asking ourselves why it happens in the first place. What makes a man say, "Yes, this black fellow will look quite nice bouncing behind my F150 like a pair of truck nutz whose elastic has become loose."
Will Smith doesn't know why, and he can't explain it to you or me either. Mark my word, though, some day we'll either know the answer, or we'll at least outbreed certain types of hate. It's a better world for all races in America since that summer day in 1998. That a mixed-race president signed a bill offering more justice for victims like Byrd is proof of that.
But we're not there yet. That's why these folks keep singing. So you better keep on listening.