Cover image from "Hate Crime," by Joyce King

Dallas History

James Byrd Jr. and the Modern-Day Lynching

22 years ago, he was dragged to death in Jasper, Texas. Here's how he's connected to George Floyd's 2020 Minneapolis and Allen Brooks' in 1910 Dallas.

After the killing of George Floyd, in Minneapolis, I was struck by the Rev. Al Sharpton’s interview with Floyd’s brother, Philonese Floyd, in Houston. Philonese described a brief condolence phone call from President Trump.

“It was so fast,” Floyd said. “He didn’t give me an opportunity to even speak. It was hard. I was trying to talk to him, but he just kept, like, pushing me off, like ‘I don’t want to hear what you’re talking about.’… I said that I couldn’t believe they committed a modern-day lynching in broad daylight.”

George Floyd grew up in Houston. I am a native. Perhaps we danced down some of the same streets and enjoyed some of the same delights of that city. Hanging at Hermann Park, celebrating the Houston Rockets’ NBA championship, or just chilling to the No. 1 radio station, KMJQ, Majik 102 FM, a broadcast outlet I was privileged to work for.

Right now, though, the bond that connects my sadness to the Floyd family’s most is something Philonese Floyd said. Ahmaud Arbery’s father used the same phrase — a modern-day lynching — to describe what happened when white men chased his son in their trucks as Ahmaud jogged down a Georgia street. It’s an honest phrase. Most folks, it seems, would rather not confront it or how lynching has evolved. Before June 7, 1998, I was in no great hurry to dive into the topic either.

It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon. I was home, in Dallas, with my husband and two sons, enjoying an extended brunch and television — until I saw the BREAKING NEWS crawler. A black man had been discovered 250 miles away, in southeast Texas, dragged down a country road.

My husband and I were both in the media business then. We both professed tremendous relief that our positions shielded us from being anywhere near Jasper, Texas, and its gory details. He was a boss who had the power to assign correspondents to cover the story. I was a radio news anchor, sitting in a comfortable chair, far removed from the trenches, confident that CBS Radio would never send me to a region that supplied the setting for a slew of traumatic experiences with racist white people. I was wrong.

After covering three “dragging trials,” I was forced to confront that phrase — modern-day lynching — and learn what it means to us today. Before Jasper, I had a decent understanding of the importance of acknowledgment and reconciliation. After Jasper, I was reminded there had not been much of either.

Two years later, I published Hate Crime: The Story of a Dragging in Jasper, Texas (Pantheon 2002). It drew mixed reviews, outright bashing, and the clear to message — to me, at least, that a Southern black woman shouldn’t be writing about such a taboo subject.

In June 2002, I was cautioned by friends to decline an invitation to give a talk at The King Center, in Atlanta, where an exhibition called “Without Sanctuary” showed enormous photographs of lynchings. My friends had seen the reviews that advised tourists to the traveling exhibition. But it seemed to me the ideal setting for my talk on why the murder of James Byrd Jr. was a modern-day lynching.

Running behind schedule, I dashed out of the Ebenezer Baptist Church to sprint across the street, leaving only a few precious minutes to catch my breath and check in with organizers of the event. I was poised and ready. Even peaceful. Recorded words spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. echoed in my ears and I was enjoying Atlanta — until the host persuaded me to walk through the “Without Sanctuary” exhibition.

I encountered black-and-white jumbo-sized photographs of lynch victims. Disturbing images of human beings hanging from trees, bridges, and poles. Men and women. The host left me alone. I saw, tasted, and felt Billie Holiday’s lyrics to “Strange Fruit” as I walked through the exhibit with other people, eavesdropping on their comments. A couple of women ran out, tears running down their blushed cheeks.

I heard a young black father explaining to his daughter what manner of crimes required such cruelty. He was exasperated. She asked again, “But what did they do?” The father stumbled through a winding answer that provided no logic.

Five minutes later, I stood at a podium, prepared to draw parallels between 1898 and June 1998, show how the similarities of a Jasper dragging contained many elements present in earlier lynchings. Including the black person targeted, the racist message sent, the terror delivered, and the violence completed. But I was struck speechless.

Looking out at the audience, I trembled. I did not speak for what must have felt an eternity to them. Angry tears welled up. I did all in my power to command them to not fall. Beyond embarrassed, I reached for a bottle of water, stalling for a few seconds, to sip, inhale, exhale, pull myself together.

I made it through the talk, and, afterward, a man named James Allen approached. He had written the book — Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photographs in America — that led to the exhibition. He gave me a copy with the inscription “For your intensity, for your insistence, for your unrelenting search, many thanks.” We embraced, warmly, tightly, without many words. Our books spoke what we could not.

So pardon me if the phrase — modern-day lynching — promotes solidarity with grieving family members begging to be heard. Forgive me if I refuse to be quiet because it hurts to hear the words.

Today I belong to a Dallas contingent dedicated to educating the public on lynching, getting white people listen more and learn these truths in ways they have never known, never encountered. There can be no healing or reconciliation without acknowledgement, greater understanding. That means being willing to listen to black people you know talk about slavery, lynching, economic injustice, 40 acres, and the pain about us, from us, left out of most history books not written by us.

About midway through the book Without Sanctuary, there is a photo of the 1910 postcard of Allen Brooks hanging on the telephone pole he was lynched from in downtown Dallas. Thousands of smiling white faces look as if they are attending an ice cream social hosted by their church. On Main Street. In a city that once boasted the largest KKK chapter in America. Dallas is also one of the counties featured in extensive research by the Equal Justice Initiative on more than 4,000 lynchings in 12 southern states.

I am proud to join the nonprofit Remembering Black Dallas in its years-long goal to have erected, at or near the site where Brooks was lynched, an accurate historical marker. Not around the corner. Not hidden away to give context to a different subject. But right on Main Street, the present-day bustling artery where Klan members once marched in big parades after sometimes conducting tar-and-feather nights on the banks of the Trinity River. Families got the message when loved ones were returned, blackened and barely alive.

Every Jasper anniversary, I remind people that “justice can open the door to healing.” We have squandered too much time prematurely claiming the prize of a post-racial healing when there has been no such thing. For today, I hope more Americans try harder to listen, to acknowledge, then be prepared to do the tough homework of an inclusive history lesson that does not marginalize the suffering endured by enslaved people and the generations of their descendants who are sick and tired of mass incarceration.

Ida B. Wells was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize this year for her work and courage. She exposed lynching, a brutal practice that will continue in this modern day if more people do not listen, learn, and change. Do it for George Floyd.

***

In 2019, Joyce King helped write a historical marker near Dealey Plaza, where three black men were lynched after being falsely accused of setting a fire to downtown Dallas. King was first non-lawyer to serve on the board of directors for the Innocence Project of Texas, and she worked with exonerees to help pass the Tim Cole Compensation Law. 

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