The brutal 1998 murder of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper is back in the news again, but for two researchers, this is only another chapter of the story.
Baylor University journalism senior lecturer Cassy Burleson and graduate studies director Mia Moody-Ramirez have been studying the story for more than 20 years, speaking to black and white residents of the East Texas town to try to create a full picture of the hate crime’s impacts. One of the murderers, John William King, 44, is scheduled to be executed Wednesday, and the Baylor researchers are continuing their work.
Burleson said after so many years, she hopes the people of Jasper will be more willing to discuss the past once the execution is behind them. One of the other men convicted in the killing was executed in 2011. The third was sentenced to life in prison.
“I think the page is turning,” Burleson said. “I agree with someone who’s a longtime, well-loved source in Jasper, who I talked to last night. She said, ‘There’s no such thing as closure, closure is a myth.’ It is a myth, but at least with this execution, the page is turning.”
The pair is continuing work with the Baylor Institute for Oral History and the American Studies Department to document the long-term effects of what happened through in-depth interviews with Jasper residents who have been directly affected by the killing.
The duo have logged at least 30 trips to the small town and completed and published full interviews with more than 30 subjects. Interviewees review the completed transcripts and sign off of them. Burleson and Moody-Ramirez have published multiple articles on their research. Over time, the pair have developed connections with Jasper residents.
“We’re still in touch with a lot of them, they get that sense that it’s not just a story,” Moody-Ramirez said. “We’re not trying to become famous off the backs of Jasper, we were trying to get to the bottom of it.”
Moody-Ramirez said the nature of the project, with its emphasis on individuals’ voices, struck a chord with participants.
“They see that as having more value,” Moody-Ramirez said. “It’s actually their voice.”
Burleson said when she started researching the story, she hoped that by telling it, she could prevent it from happening again.
“I thought maybe it would put a little dent in the hate,” Burleson said. “Obviously, it has not put a dent, but who can? At least the truth, at least the story is going to be somewhere, because it’s still the most horrific murder I’ve ever heard of.”
Byrd, a black resident of Jasper, was killed in June 1998 by three white men who offered him a ride. They took Byrd to a secluded area, beat him, sprayed him with black spray paint, then chained him to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him down a stretch of road. Byrd’s body was discovered in pieces the next day, and local police determined he had been alive during the dragging. Chief Investigator Curtis Frank said the killing happened within the span of 30 minutes.
Before the murder, Jasper was largely considered an ideal place to live by residents of all races. While some aspects of life there were still segregated, there were black residents in leadership roles, and the town was known for having good public schools.
“Jasper at one time was thriving,” Moody-Ramirez said. “People would move there. It was a place you wanted to live.”
The murder quickly became international news. Outlets from Beaumont to Australia picked up the story and descended on the town for the investigation and subsequent trials.
“The world was there,” Burleson said. “Thousands of reporters, and then thousands of reporters for the trials. We’re talking about an invasion.”
Burleson and Moody-Ramirez analyzed news coverage from the time and found many outlets incorporated stereotypes about East Texas into their coverage that did not reflect Jasper’s reality. For example, several papers speculated the killing was connected to the Ku Klux Klan.
“That’s what they were looking for, but that’s not what they found,” Moody-Ramirez said. “They found black citizens in leadership positions. They still wrote about it that way.”
Burleson said she thinks those stereotypes might have made the killing, already brutal and shocking, into an international news story.
“You could put anybody under a microscope and turn the heat on, and that’s what happened to Jasper,” Burleson said.
Under the scrutiny, Jasper banded together in many ways. Leadership emerged in the form of an alliance of black and white ministers who led the community through the murder, trials and media circus.
Burleson said the current political climate has also put a strain on the town.
“I would say that it was definitely a journey,” Moody-Ramirez said. “We definitely saw a transition, particularly in some of the African-American people we interviewed. It became tougher later on, just because of everything going on in the town.”
Their last study found a significant economic impact on the town. Tourism had been a main component of the town’s economy.
In their research, they found some of the town’s struggles brought residents together. In 2003, the Columbia space shuttle broke up over the town, and thousands mobilized to find and contain its debris. In 2005, Hurricane Rita left Jasper without electricity or running water for days, and the community banded together to help one another.
“Right after something happens, they become closer,” Moody-Ramirez said. “That continued for about two years, and then it stopped.”
Other incidents have caused more conflict. In 2012, the town’s first black police chief was fired, and three black members of the city council were recalled shortly thereafter. In 2013, a black man went missing and was later found dead. The death was accidental, but fears and rumors swirled during the search for the missing man. More recently, Walter Diggles, former executive director of the Deep East Texas Council of Governments, was found guilty of stealing hurricane relief funds. Diggles was a prominent figure in the Jasper community after Byrd’s murder.
Moody-Ramirez said black residents started telling her about five years ago they were worried that having their names come up in connection with the event, for example, in a Google search, could cost them jobs. She started interviewing former Jasper residents in other cities to continue the project. One interviewee asked for a video of him to be taken down.
“That was one of the things people didn’t want to talk about,” Moody-Ramirez said. “They felt like if they talked about that, it could get them into trouble.”
The researchers said every subsequent incident in Jasper has reopened old wounds, continuing to put pressure on the beleaguered town. At times, the work takes its toll on the two of them, but both said they are emotionally invested.
“We feel it,” Burleson said. “It is an amazing thing when you really know the people and you understand the pain that it’s caused. It’s impacted the entire community for all these years.”
They plan to conduct another content analysis after King’s execution and look for trends in the coverage. They also plan to study the town’s image-repair and leadership strategies over time. Moody-Ramirez said denial, mortification and victim blaming are all possible responses to look for.
“We’ll also look at who used those strategies,” Moody-Ramirez said. “Was it the city, or was it individuals? Different people use different strategies.”
For now, they are considering a long list of key figures they will want to interview for the next part of their study. Eventually, they plan to write a book.
“That will be the final piece, we think,” Moody-Ramirez said.