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Dragging death still shadows Texas town

Ten years after James Byrd Jr. was dragged to death down a three-mile stretch of country road simply because he was black, some things have changed in Jasper.

Black and white teenagers can be seen playing basketball together at James Byrd Jr. Memorial Park. Blacks now make up a majority on the City Council. And an iron fence no longer separates the graves of whites and blacks in the 171-year-old cemetery where Byrd is buried.

But Byrd's murder, which jolted the nation with its utter brutality and unvarnished racism, still casts a shadow over this timber town in deep East Texas.

“It is something we have to live with the rest of our lives,” said Walter Diggles, a black civic leader and executive director of the Deep East Texas Council of Governments. “It is similar to Dallas, when people think of the JFK assassination, or Memphis, when people think of Martin Luther King's murder.”

Ever since three white men beat the 49-year-old Byrd, chained him by the ankles to the bumper of a Ford pickup truck, then pulled him down Huff Creek Road in the early hours of June 7, 1998, Jasper has been almost synonymous with the horrors of racism.

A decade later, according to Diggles, some people are still afraid to visit Jasper, a town of 8,000. Some businesses have been reluctant to come to town, which is badly in need of industry.

However, Diggles and many others say there is a hopeful part of the story too often overlooked: The murder forced the people of Jasper, a town whose population is almost evenly divided between black and white, to confront their prejudices.

“Afterward, people came together, worked together and healed together,” said R.C. Horn, who was mayor at the time and is black.

Byrd's murderers were quickly arrested and convicted. John William King and Lawrence Russell Brewer are on death row. Shawn Allen Berry is serving a life sentence.

The Rev. Ronald Foshage, a white priest at St. Michael's Parish and other townspeople said that before the killing, blacks and whites sat separately at football games and in other public settings. But now, they say, they see less of that.

There is still work to do. A few years back, Byrd's gravesite was vandalized and defaced with slurs.

“We're getting there,” Betty Byrd Boatner, Byrd's younger sister, said, “but it just takes time.”