DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Twenty-one years ago, in the East Texas town of Jasper, a black man, James Byrd Jr., was murdered by three white supremacists. Byrd was kidnapped while walking home in the early morning hours of June 7, and what happened next shocked the conscience of the nation - indeed, really, the world. This afternoon, one of the men responsible for that horrific violence, John William King, is scheduled to be executed by the state of Texas. NPR's Wade Goodwyn covered this story back in 1998 and covered the subsequent trials. He's here with us.
WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: And I do want to give people just a moment here to step away if they don't want to hear what I'm sure will be some graphic details that could upset some people. But could you take us back to 1998 and when this happened?
GOODWYN: Yes. What happened was three men, white men driving around in a pickup truck late on a Saturday night looking for trouble, saw a 49-year-old African American man walking home. They stopped and offered him a ride. And James Byrd Jr. knew the man behind the wheel, who was Shawn Berry, and Berry invited him to get in, and they say they took him - they'd take him home, and so Byrd did.
But they didn't take him home, and they took him out to the woods. I think Byrd thought they were going to go have a drink together. But they all got out, and eventually, they attacked Byrd. They beat him with a baseball bat. They taunted him. They urinated on him and, finally, chained him by his ankles to the back of that truck and drug Byrd three miles down a paved road, until he was dead. And then they got out, gathered up a few of the body parts and dumped those in front of an African American church, where he was found later that Sunday morning.
Now, you know, Jasper's a very religious East Texas town, which meant that much of the black population were worshipping in their various churches around the town when the news of what had happened spread. And as you can imagine, it tore through that black community like wildfire, and people were devastated; they were horrified.
GREENE: How quickly did they catch the men who did this?
GOODWYN: Pretty quickly. The FBI was called in, the Texas Rangers, and law enforcement caught 23-year-old Sherry Bawn (ph) and John William King and 31-year-old Russell Brewer quickly; they'd left behind evidence that pointed right to them - a wrench that had Berry's name on it, lighter that had King's prison nickname on it. And King and Brewer had met in prison, and they were avowed white supremacists, and King had had racist tats all over his body, including one of a black man hanging from a tree.
King and Brewer, they were the main perpetrators, and they got sentenced to death. Berry testified for the state; he got life in prison. And Russell was executed eight years ago, and the day before he went to the chamber, he said he'd had no regrets, and if he was given the chance, he'd do it all over again. But today it's Bill King's turn to die.
GREENE: What has happened in this community over these two decades since then?
GOODWYN: Well, in the white community, at first, there was a lot of denial - blaming the media for making them look bad. But, you know, after a while, the media went away, and Jasper was still left with the reputation of being a hateful place, and that affected everything - businesses wouldn't move there; if you owned a house and you wanted to leave, you had a hard time selling it. Saying, you know, we're really not like that, just didn't matter.
You know, for the last 20 years, Jasper's had this crime hanging over its head. But that's also forced the white community there to look in the mirror in a way that most white communities haven't had to. And of course, not everyone's been willing to look. You know, lynchings here were as prevalent as the worst parts of the Deep South, and that legacy of white supremacy endures.
GREENE: NPR's Wade Goodwyn.
Wade, thank you so much.
GOODWYN: You're quite welcome.
GREENE: He covered the kidnapping and dragging death of James Byrd Jr. and the subsequent murder trials. Forty-four-year-old John William King is scheduled to be executed in Huntsville, Texas, this evening at 6 p.m. Central time.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.