Rare Book Monthly

Articles - April - 2005 Issue

A Death in Texas by Dina Temple-Raston: Not all Books are Equal

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A world of madness


A review by Bruce McKinney

Sitting on the shelves of bookstores across America and around the world is 316 pages of mercury by weight. It is called A Death in Texas and was written by Dina Temple-Raston, a Bloomberg Business News reporter. It tells the story of a murder committed in Jasper, Texas in 1998 by three young men. The victim, James Byrd, Jr. 49, was black and his killers white. This is a story that many people know something about. Most did not follow the story closely but "know" it anyway. Their "knowing" often reflects their perception of "race" and "southern race" issues generally rather than their specific knowledge of the case. People bring their opinions and find in the story, whether expressed on talk radio, in film, in a book or a lecture, confirmation of their views. Often of course the individual chooses their source of interpretation. You then hear what you believe and believe what you hear even if it isn't true. In America today we too often listen to our favorite interpreters confirm a version of facts that comports with our own. "Know" is today "no" guarantee of accurate interpretation. Regardless of which side you are on this too often is true.

The FBI defines a hate crime to be "a criminal offense committed against a person, property or society which is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender's bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin." The killing of James Byrd, Jr. in 1998 was defined in those terms by the legal authorities. This is the story.

Mr. Byrd, a 49-year-old occasional day laborer and frequent night drinker, was an ineffective son in an otherwise effective family. When others might have been home Mr. Byrd was out nursing a beer. In the evening of June 6th, 1988 he was invited into a truck by three younger men he probably knew. The chance for another drink, some company or simply a ride home may have induced him to get in. These men, Bill King [23], Russell Brewer [32] and Shawn Berry [23], then drove a pick-up truck, with Byrd in the back out to Huff Creek Road, a tired underdeveloped area. The men then beat him, tied him by chain to their truck and dragged him for three miles. Along the way he died and was decapitated. Where they beat him they left tire tracks, beer bottles, CD cases, a socket wrench, a cigarette lighter with the initials KKK and their finger prints. The following morning, when the body was discovered law enforcement officers simply walked back up the road, following the trail of human debris, to its source. There was little effort to conceal the crime. It was insanity in broad daylight.

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