JASPER, Texas – As some of James Byrd Jr.’s family members witnessed the execution of his killer, John William "Bill" King, in Huntsville, others gathered in Jasper, with friends and clergy members to pray for both men.
One of Byrd’s sisters, Betty Boatner, helped organize the remembrance. She says she’s at peace and wants others to be, as well.
"Let the people know we coming together as one, and we having prayer for the whole world, and everything is going to be alright," Boatner said.
The group sang, and prayed, mixing tears and laughter.
“It’s important to me because I’m really praying that Bill King asked for forgiveness. I spoke to his dad (before he died) and Bill never asked for forgiveness,” the Rev. Ron Foshage, with St. Michael’s Catholic Church of Jasper, said.
It’s been almost 20 years since Byrd was murdered, but the painful memories remain. Some hope King’s execution will bring closure for Byrd’s family and this small community.
Byrd grew up in Jasper as one of eight children of a schoolteacher and a Baptist deacon. His family life revolved around church and music.
"He always believed through his music he could put Jasper on the map, and he did put Jasper on the map, but it wasn't for his music," Byrd’s sister, Louvon Byrd Harris, said.
King grew up in Jasper, too. And one night in June 1998, he and Byrd became indelibly linked through one of the worst hate crimes in history.
King, along with Shawn Berry and Russell Brewer, stopped to give Byrd a ride. King and Brewer were ex-convicts, avowed racists and members of the Confederate Knights of America prison gang. Former Jasper County Sheriff Billy Rowles said they were looking for someone to kill.
“They planned to kill a black man on July Fourth, the gang they were associated with in prison,” Rowles said.
The three men chained Byrd to the back of their truck and dragged him 3 miles down a deserted road. They then dumped what was left of his body in front of a black church.
That’s where Rowles found him the next day.
“It was bad. It was bad. People don’t do that to people,” Rowles said.
Evidence at the scene, including a Ku Klux Klan lighter, quickly led the sheriff to the three killers.
And overnight, Jasper became a touchstone around the world for race hatred and violence.
The killing brought armed Ku Klux Klan members and New Black Panthers to Jasper to protest and opened racial fissures in the community.
It forced dialogue about race relations in this small East Texas town that Byrd’s sister says needs to continue.
"You're not born to hate. It's a learned behavior," Harris said.
Byrd’s death led to new hate crime legislation at both the state and federal level.
The city named a park after him.
After his death, the city removed a fence in the city cemetery that, for decades, had separated the graves of black people from those of white people.
And the Byrd family set up a foundation dedicated to multicultural understanding.
Brewer was executed in 2011. Berry is serving life in prison.
And Wednesday night, Bill King was executed. He never expressed regret for Byrd’s death.
“He’s an animal,” Rowles said. “I don’t think you can learn to do this. There has to be something inside you waiting to get out. I think he’s a bad guy.”
Byrd is buried in Jasper City Cemetery. Ironically, King’s body will be brought back to Jasper to be buried not far from him.