On a chilly Friday afternoon in January, 68-year-old George McDaniel is holding court in the garage of his recreational-vehicle repair shop in the small east Texas town of Jasper (population: about 8,000). Several residents listen intently as the voice of the solidly built, gray-haired, tobacco-chewing president of the Deep East Texas Tea Party grows louder.
"Obama wanted to use race to separate us," McDaniel says, almost shouting as he suddenly stands up from his stool and stabs his finger in the air. "Just like Jesse Jackson and the lying, anti-American, liberal media did after the James Byrd thing."
Jerry Lon Walker Jr., 61, claps his hands and laughs as McDaniel speaks. Walker's long hair cascades from his baseball cap—which indicates his membership in the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. "George is fired up," Walker says reverently.
Other attendees wear the uniform of men who work with their hands—gimme caps, jeans, T-shirts, and work boots. They clap, smile, and nod their heads in agreement with Walker.
The men cheer from a garage on the east side of Jasper, six miles from the logging road where James Byrd Jr. was killed 20 years ago.
At about 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning on June 7th, 1998, three white men, after a night of drinking, went joyriding in a gray pick-up truck through the streets of Jasper—a town roughly divided between black and white residents. They passed James Byrd, Jr. walking down Martin Luther King Boulevard. Byrd, 49, had also been drinking and was walking home from a party. The driver, 23-year-old Shawn Berry, offered Byrd a ride. The black man climbed in the bed of the truck.
John William King, 23, and Lawrence Russell Brewer, 31, were sitting in the cab of the truck with Berry. King was covered in tattoos indicating the ex-convict's beliefs: Aryan Pride written in block letters under a Confederate flag, Nazi-type SS lightning bolts, and a black man hanging from a tree. Like King, Brewer, also an ex-convict, sported a tattoo proclaiming his membership in the Confederate Knights of America, an organization affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan.
"That's some ho-ass shit picking up a fucking nigger," King said to Berry.
Berry seemed to shrug off his friend's comment. King fumed. The men pulled over to relieve themselves at a convenience store, after which Byrd switched places with King and Brewer—Byrd in the truck's cab and the two white men in the bed of the vehicle. Several minutes later, King banged on the top of the vehicle and yelled at Berry to stop.
The truck abruptly stopped on a logging road just outside of town. King and Brewer yanked Byrd, arthritic and about 5'9" and 160 pounds, from the truck.
The two white men beat Byrd without mercy, viciously kicking him in the head and torso. Brewer grabbed a can of black paint from the truck and sprayed it in Byrd's face. The men ripped down Byrd's pants and underwear. They grabbed a logging chain. King said, court records would later reveal, that this is what they did in the old days to "niggers who messed with white women."
The men chained Byrd by his ankles to the pick-up and dragged him three miles, tearing him to shreds. Byrd tried to protect his head by propping himself up on his elbows, which were later discovered ground to the bone.
The next day, law enforcement found parts of Byrd's body scattered in at least 75 different places. They also found a cigarette lighter adorned with a Klan emblem.
Jasper Sheriff Billy Rowles, a white man, quickly surmised what happened when he arrived at the crime scene.
"I knew somebody had been murdered because he was black," Rowles would later testify in court. "I thought that was a hate crime."
The murder attracted intense international attention and launched a federal hate crimes act named after Byrd. Then-President Bill Clinton phoned Byrd's parents to offer condolences. The nation's most prominent black politicians and civil rights leaders—including Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People President Kweisi Mfume, and United States Representative Maxine Waters (D-California), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus at the time—descended on Jasper to demand justice. And when juries gave King and Brewer the death penalty, and Berry life in prison, many people in Jasper felt justice had been served.
Perhaps it was the heinousness of the crime, or perhaps it was the nature of the racially motivated killing; either way, there seemed to be a change in the air after the murder. Many white Jasper residents appeared to be acknowledging and finally coming to grips with the deep history of racism that had tainted the town's past. White folks stood arm-in-arm with black folks during candlelight vigils. They attended rallies for racial healing. The town leaders named a municipal park after Byrd and removed a wrought-iron fence separating the black and white sections of a community cemetery. When then-Texas Governor Rick Perry (R) signed the state's James Bryd Jr. Hate Crime Law in 2001, it really did seem as if the lynching had initiated a breakthrough in race relations—not only in Jasper, but also throughout Texas.
"White people and black people came together after it happened," says 64-year-old Carlton Boatner, Byrd's brother-in-law. "A lot of people thought the days of a racist murder like that were behind us."
Academic articles, documentary films, media accounts of the lynching, and the Jasper Dragging Incident oral history project at Baylor University are unequivocal in calling Byrd's murder racially motivated.
Cassy Burleson, a senior lecturer in journalism at Baylor and the lead researcher for the Jasper Dragging Incident oral history project, says white people initially believed there was a clear racial motivation for the crime, but as years went by some residents' opinions changed. Burleson says that the passage of time makes it easier to misremember history, and attitudes regarding race have shifted in the last 20 years.
"There is a racial polarization that has occurred—not just in Jasper but across the country," Burleson says. "It's been going on for a few years, and it really accelerated with the election of Trump." That polarization might be giving some white people permission to deny the true motive behind the dragging death of Byrd, Burleson says.
Most black Jasper residents know the reality of the murder. They also know about the long history of Klan activity in East Texas. They know about the dozens of lynchings of black people—including those for which no one has ever been prosecuted. They know about the so-called "sundown towns," such as Vidor, which black people are still warned to avoid after sunset. And black people know about the irony of the Juneteenth holiday celebrated throughout the state and now the country. It marks the day that Texas slaves were notified of their freedom—months after slaves around the rest of the nation were officially freed. (I happened to be visiting Jasper the day after a lesser-known but still official state holiday—Confederate Heroes Day.)
While black people may be achingly aware of the racist motivation of Byrd's killers, a series of interviews with Jasper residents suggests a different narrative has taken hold among white citizens. It is one that avoids the mention of race. "I don't know if it was a drug deal gone wrong or what, but I can tell you it wasn't about race," McDaniel insists. "People in Jasper know that." (No evidence indicates the murder was part of a drug deal.)
The denial of racist history is nothing new, but historians and sociologists say it has become increasingly prevalent since the election of the nation's first black president in 2008. It has since exploded with the rise of a president who retweets white nationalists, promotes the belief that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and dismisses news that doesn't suit his tastes as fake.
McDaniel and other white Jasper residents speak about President Donald Trump in glowing terms, with some suggesting he is literally godsent. And they also believe the media has deliberately spread lies about Byrd's death at the hands of white supremacists.
"Of course the liberal media has played up race and lied about James Byrd," McDaniel tells me one day during a work break at his RV-repair shop. "The same way they lie about Trump."
The Sunday morning the body was found, Betty Boatner, Byrd's younger sister, 44 years old at the time, had been sitting on a couch in her parents' modest clapboard-sided house on Broad Street, one mile from the Jasper County Courthouse. This was her favorite time of the week—visiting with her parents after attending church and sharing Sunday dinner with her family.
Boatner saw several men approaching the house—Sheriff Rowles, Sergeant James Carter and the county mortician. Most folks already knew about a black man being murdered on Huff Creek Road. The deeply religious woman had heard the news that morning as it caromed through the black churches and streets of east Jasper, where the majority of African Americans in town live. When Boatner saw the lawmen, her stomach dropped.
Watching the men approach the Byrd home, it was as if time slowed down for Boatner. Why would someone hurt her big brother? In elementary school Boatner was a fighter—she wouldn't abide a white girl calling her the n-word, as they often did. Her brother James was the one to calm her down and encourage her to shrug the epithet off. And while James had a drinking problem and had served time in prison for petty theft, the Byrd family had a saying: James never hurt anybody but himself.
As Sergeant Carter, an old family friend, told Byrd's parents the ghastly news about their son, Boatner struggled to stay calm, something her big brother James had tried to teach her all those years before.
During the ensuing weeks, dozens of residents, black and white, came by the Byrd house. They stopped Boatner on the street and offered condolences. Some white residents cried as they hugged her. The community's response to the hate crime—the condemnation by prominent white people in Jasper, the apprehension of culprits within two days of the murder, the hundreds of black and white residents standing together and singing "We Shall Overcome" on the courthouse square—made Boatner think that something good may come from the evil act perpetrated against her big brother.
"God had a plan for my brother," Boatner says. "His murder forced white people to see the amount of racism that blacks have to deal with."
And when juries sentenced King, Brewer, and Berry, Boatner says she felt a sense of closure.
"There was a day and a time in this country that cops and jurors ignored facts in racial cases," Jasper County District Attorney Guy James Gray would say after the convictions. "That time no longer exists. Facts are facts."
The morning after visiting McDaniel at his RV repair shop, I run into Mike Lout. The 62-year-old radio station owner and former mayor of Jasper is having coffee with some old-timers in the Belle-Jim Hotel, across the street from the Jasper County Courthouse.
"Folks around here are tired of being interviewed about James Byrd," says Lout, who was mayor from 2010 to 2016. "It gave us a bad name that we don't deserve."
After some initial hesitation, Lout agrees to show me around town, if I'll tag along with him as he reports on the 12th Annual Jasper Youth Trout Fishing Derby for the radio station he owns.
The former mayor's colorful past—in 2010 police arrested a shirtless Lout at a Sonic drive-in restaurant for public intoxication, and in November of 2017 Lout was charged with assault for punching another former Jasper mayor in the face—doesn't seem to have hurt his popularity. Several of the almost 100 families at the Trout Derby heartily greet him. Lout takes a few minutes to chat with each of the few black families at the event. "Race relations aren't perfect, but we get along pretty well here, as well as anywhere," he says.
After an hour or so at the fishing contest, we get into Lout's Jeep and drive five miles east of town, into the Piney Woods.
As we turn onto Huff Creek Road, dense pine trees on either side of the rough asphalt tower above us. "It was a Sunday morning and somebody called into the radio station and said: 'Please pray for the Huff Creek Community. My neighbor found a man's head in her driveway,'" Lout says. "I didn't believe it at first." He drove out to the crime scene.
"To see a man's teeth laying in the road and chunks of meat in the road, it gives you an idea of what torment the man went through and the amount of hate those boys had," Lout says.
I tell Lout more than a dozen white residents have told me that racial hatred wasn't the principal motivation of Byrd's killers. Most of them say the murder was simply the result of a drug deal gone wrong. King's lawyer made the same argument to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in January in an attempt to get his client, who is still on death row, a new trial. In February, the court denied the lawyer's request.
"A lot of people around here say that because they heard somebody else say that, but it's nonsense," Lout says. "I broke the goddammed story and covered those goddammed trials. Hell, I'm friends with almost everybody involved."
Shaking his head, he adds: "People in Jasper are good, decent folks, but we all believe what we want to believe."
Dozens of family photographs hang on the hallway walls in Betty and her husband, Carlton's, home, as do two framed photos of Obama. In one, the former president is embracing Betty. The other is a copy of the federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act named in honor of her brother (not to be confused with Texas' hate crimes law). Obama signed the act in 2009.
After a tour of their home, the Boatners introduce me to 93-year-old James Byrd Sr. Today he has Alzheimer's disease and is in need of constant care. His condition renders him unable to respond to questions. Twenty years ago, he was clear-minded and painfully aware of the brutal way his son's life ended.
Despite the unfortunate history of race relations in Jasper, Betty and Carlton still like living there. "Sure there is racism, but it's no worse than other places in America," Carlton says.
I ask Betty if she is bothered by the fact that some of her white neighbors now deny that her brother was killed because of the color of his skin. For a moment, she sits in silence.
"Some people have their own opinion and that doesn't bother me anymore," she finally says. "I know what happened to my brother, and the God I worship knows."