• U.S.

The Second Coming Of a Nightmare

4 minute read
S.C. Gwynne/Jasper, Texas

The courthouse at Jasper had never seen anything like it before. There, just inside the massive French doors on the 110-year-old yellow stucco building, were an X-ray machine and a metal detector to screen everyone entering the building. But, of course, the little logging town hasn’t been quite the same since June 7, 1998, when a black man was chained to the back of a pickup and dragged three miles to his death, pieces of him, including his head, falling by the wayside. Now the first of three white men accused of the crime is up for trial, and the pesky flock of media and the noisy host of activists who swept into town last year have returned.

Last week the quaint square around the courthouse was jammed with satellite trucks and bristling with security. Dozens of uniformed police officers accompanied jurors, and plainclothes Texas Rangers with Secret Service-style earphones encircled the witness stand, even as police helicopters swept the skies. And, of course, no one could get into the courtroom without going through those machines. Local officials feared a repeat of the marches that rocked the town after the death of James Byrd Jr. last summer. On the day of his funeral, both the Ku Klux Klan and the New Black Panther Party marched on the courthouse. The former demanded fairness for its disciples; the latter demanded justice.

Outside the courthouse last week, men were hawking T shirts with photos of Byrd, along with CDs and hats bearing the slogan THE TRIAL OF THE CENTURY, JASPER, TEXAS. LOVE, PEACE & HARMONY. Last Wednesday, Quanell X, leader of Houston’s National Black Muslims, showed up with a cadre of black-clad bodyguards, proclaiming what happened to Byrd “a lynching, not a murder,” and briefly challenging Judge Joe Bob Golden’s order barring demonstrations. Quanell X and his men finally agreed to sit quietly in court.

In the courtroom Byrd’s family sat in the front row, often weeping as prosecutors piled up what began to look like overwhelming evidence against John William King, 24, the unemployed laborer and ex-con accused of masterminding the dragging. Across from them sat King’s wheelchair-bound father Ronald, who took oxygen through tubes and moaned and cried softly through the opening arguments. A few feet in front of him was his son. Visible around the defendant’s waist was an electric stun belt, to be used if he grew disruptive.

In one of the more horrifying turns in the courtroom, prosecutors argued that King and his accomplices had, after dragging Byrd half a mile, stopped to fix a flat tire. At that point Byrd was still alive and conscious. His tormentors then dragged him 2 1/2 more miles to his death. The jury also heard the tale of a young man sent to prison for burglary who emerged as a heavily tattooed member of a Klan spur group. One witness said King plotted to kill a black man when he returned to Jasper as part of a “blood-tie” initiation into the Klan chapter he planned to form. Photos showed tattoos covering much of King’s upper body, including the image of a black man hanging from a tree, pentagrams, goat heads, a horned baby Jesus, Nazi SS lightning bolts and the words ARYAN PRIDE.

In January Jasper removed a fence that had long separated blacks from whites in the local cemetery. But residents of Jasper are much more concerned about the living and the remnants of what they once believed was racial harmony. According to the Rev. Kenneth Lyons of the Greater New Bethel Church, there was trouble at the Jasper Middle School. Black students had planned to start a junior Black Panther party, and a white student had drawn a Confederate flag in the sand. The principal and church elders quashed the Panther idea and sent the white student home. Says Lyons: “We got both black and white kids to remove anything offensive from their lockers.” “We thought we were doing a decent job,” says the Rev. Jerry Neff, a local Methodist minister. “What the murder did was to make us take a step back and say, maybe we’re not doing as well as we ought to.”

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