By Sean Yoes
AFRO Baltimore Editor

The public execution of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia in February was captured on video; if it hadn’t been, the White men charged with his murder would most likely still be free to this day.

On Memorial Day, George Floyd was also publicly executed in Minneapolis at the hands of another White man, a member of the Minneapolis Police Department. And because Floyd’s murder was captured on video the country continues to be roiled to its foundations as White America is forced to confront the legacy and reality of systemic racism.

Twenty-two years ago, on June 7, 1998, James Byrd Jr., was lynched by White men, but it was not public and there was no videotape. However, the three White supremacists who murdered Byrd, Shawn Berry, 23, Lawrence Brewer, 31, and John King, 23, were so disdainful of Byrd’s humanity they left his remains sprawled throughout the sleepy town of Jasper, Texas in one of most heinous hate crimes in American history.

Byrd, 49, was born and raised in Jasper and the night he was slaughtered he allegedly accepted a ride from Berry, who he knew from around town. Berry was the driver of the pickup used to drag Byrd’s body for miles before his right arm was severed and he was decapitated.

Before they dragged him to his death, the diabolical trio took Byrd to a remote county road where they severely beat him, spray painted his face, urinated on him and defecated on him according to court records.

But, they weren’t done with him.

Berry, Brewer and King seemingly invoked the bloodthirsty legacy of their forefathers, who had dragged countless Black men through towns across America over the centuries, when they chained Byrd to the back of Berry’s truck and dragged him for about three miles through Jasper. Allegedly Byrd remained conscious through much of his dragging. Perhaps his tormentors purposefully drove just slow enough so they could torture Byrd before he ultimately was decapitated. When they were done, the murderers dumped what remained of Byrd’s body in front of a Black church like so much refuse. Then, the trio allegedly drove off to a barbeque. 

Investigators discovered Byrd’s remains at 81 locations throughout Jasper, and along the murder trail, they discovered various pieces of evidence linking the three to the grisly crime. After determining a hate crime had been committed, local officials called upon the FBI less than 24 hours after Byrd’s remains were discovered by a motorist the morning after the lynching. 

Berry, Brewer and King were tried and convicted for Byrd’s murder. Brewer and King received the death penalty (Brewer died via lethal injection on September 21, 2011, and King suffered the same fate just about a year ago on April 24, 2019). Berry was sentenced to life in prison where he remains to this day. He is eligible for parole in 2038. Brewer and King were the first White men ever to be sentenced to death for killing a Black person in the history of Texas.

The reality is the men who gunned down Arbery were every bit as audacious as the men who murdered Byrd, yet they almost got away with it. The police officer who boldly, perhaps proudly kneeled on the neck of Floyd as the life seeped out of him, was only charged with murder in the second degree and there is no guarantee he will ultimately be convicted of his crime.

Juxtapose the lynching of James Byrd in 1998 and the consequences suffered by the men who murdered him, to the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd and the plight of their killers in 2020.

In the transition from the 20th to the 21st century, how much progress has America made in honoring the humanity of its Black citizens? Will Black lives ever truly matter in this country?


Sean Yoes

AFRO Baltimore Editor