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Why a 25-year-old lynching should still haunt America

White supremacists murdered James Byrd Jr. in Texas. The racist extremism they espoused is now this nation’s biggest terrorist threat.

James Byrd Jr., in a 1997 family photoAP

On a Sunday morning in Jasper, Texas, three white men offered James Byrd Jr. a ride home.

After a detour into the woods, they beat Byrd, a Black man, with a baseball bat. They urinated on him. Then the men chained Byrd by his ankles to the back of their pickup truck and dragged him down a secluded road for several miles. His arm was torn off and he was decapitated. Whatever pieces of Byrd’s body the men could find they dumped in front of a Black church where parishioners would discover them a few hours later.

Wednesday marks 25 years since Byrd’s murder, one of the most grisly killings in America’s long history of racist violence. Its haunting remembrance comes as federal officials issue new warnings about probable increases in white supremacist violence, this nation’s biggest terrorist threat, amid right-wing rhetoric and lies targeting people of color, immigrants, Jews, and the LGBTQ+ community.

In recent weeks, a mass shooter who posted neo-Nazi and white supremacist views killed eight people at an Allen, Texas, mall. He was shot dead by a police officer. A man who displayed a Nazi flag and spoke of his admiration for Adolf Hitler was arrested after he crashed a rented truck into a White House security barrier in an attempt to kill President Biden. There’s no evidence these men knew each other; but they are linked by poisonous far-right ideology.


In 1999, Byrd’s white supremacist killers — Lawrence Russell Brewer, John William King, and Shawn Allen Berry — were all convicted of capital murder in separate trials. Brewer and King received the death penalty and were later executed. Berry was sentenced to life in prison.

In a statement after King’s conviction, President Bill Clinton said it was “my hope that people would join together across racial lines to demonstrate that an act of evil like this is not what our country is all about. That hope was fulfilled over the past 8 months, as citizens across the country expressed their outrage and grief over this tragedy and their determination to ensure that justice be done.”


He added, “Our work for racial reconciliation and an end to all crimes of hatred in this country will go on.”

That work has gone on. But more than two decades later, so have crimes of hatred. In less than a decade, there have been mass shootings in a historically Black church in South Carolina; LGBTQ+ clubs in Orlando and Colorado Springs, Colo.; a Pittsburgh synagogue; a Walmart in El Paso frequented by Latinos from both sides of the southern border; and a Buffalo supermarket targeted because it’s in a predominantly Black neighborhood.

According to an Anti-Defamation League report released earlier this year, every “ideologically motivated” mass shooting last year has been linked to far-right extremism.

That’s why those “this is not who we are” sentiments expressed by presidents after such atrocities are so useless and self-serving. They absolve this nation’s bloody foundation and reduce the scourge of racist violence to an invasive bug in the machine — not the machine itself.

There has never been a moment in this country, even before its declaration of independence, when some group hasn’t been fighting against white supremacy for full recognition of their rights and humanity.


And the violence that challenges their existence has only swelled since Byrd’s murder, a crime some have compared in its barbarity to the 1955 death of Emmett Till, a Chicago teen kidnapped, tortured, and killed by two white supremacists in Mississippi.

In the coming weeks and months, this will continue to be a nation on the edge. More indictments are expected to be announced against former president Donald Trump. The murder trial for the man accused of killing 11 people at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue is underway. Decisions on highly charged issues — including affirmative action, immigration, and free speech — are forthcoming from the conservative-stacked Supreme Court this month.

As more Republicans join the 2024 presidential race, many will triple down on attacks against trans people, reproductive rights, teachers, and history itself. They will use dog whistles and bullhorns to deepen this nation’s animus.

And they will do what white supremacy has always demanded — stoke the same racism that, at its most depraved, led to the gruesome lynching of a beloved son, father, and grandfather on a desolate east Texas road 25 years ago.

Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @reneeygraham.