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A Life Marked by Troubles, but Not by Hatred

A Life Marked by Troubles, but Not by Hatred


By DAVID FIRESTONE

From the shade of his porch across the street, Grover Thomas could watch the steady stream of people, black and white, bearing casseroles and baked chicken and other peace offerings today to the family of James Byrd Jr., who was killed this week in one of the South's most grotesque racial murders in many years.

But somewhere in his 81-year-old imagination, Mr. Thomas -- known as Pete in the quietly disheveled, mostly black neighborhood of East Jasper -- still held out hope that Mr. Byrd would somehow walk up to his porch, as he did every morning, with a friendly word and a few sausages or a cardboard box of dominoes.


''When he didn't come over Sunday, I knew that he was gone, not coming back,'' Mr. Thomas, a retired sawmill hand, said as a rooster strutted about the dirt lawn and an old dog scratched. ''He had cut my lawn the day before, and he was supposed to take me to church. He had his problems, but he never forgot.''

James Byrd, who was 49, never seemed to have made full use of a broad intelligence and a renowned musical ability, relatives and neighbors said. But those who knew him described something solid within him, a reliability that drove him to take care of Mr. Thomas, an elderly neighbor he had known since boyhood, and a deep affection for the three children of his failed marriage.

For all of his personal problems -- alcoholism, petty thievery, an inability to hold a job -- he was well liked and had apparently never been involved in any kind of racial incident. Family members, gathered from across Texas for the funeral on Saturday, said they could not fathom the kind of random racial hatred that the authorities say led three white men to drag him by his ankles from a pickup truck early Sunday morning, tearing his body to pieces.

''We told the children that this was just an isolated act of people who were sick and twisted,'' said Clara Taylor, one of Mr. Byrd's sisters, standing on the front lawn of the brown wooden house where they both grew up and where Mr. Byrd's parents still live. ''To do this, you have to believe that someone is just not worth living to begin with. It had nothing to do with him. It could have been anyone walking down the street. If they were black, that is.''

Mr. Byrd's high school class of 1967 was the last segregated class in this East Texas town of 8,000, but even before full integration began, neither Mr. Byrd nor most other residents had any significant run-ins with white residents, neighbors and relatives said. Mr. Byrd often sold vacuum cleaners to make money, said another sister, Mary Verrett, and had success with both white and black customers. He would often be seen walking the streets of town, accepting rides from friends or acquaintances, and never with any consequences.

''The kind of racial problems we had here were the kinds of things where you wouldn't get the promotion or the right jobs,'' Mrs. Verrett said. ''In all the time I grew up, there was never any outright bigotry, and none of us were afraid to walk the street. In fact, you could say we were pretty happy.''

Mr. Byrd was the third of eight children of Stella Byrd, a Sunday school teacher, and James Byrd Sr., a dry cleaner. The family's life revolved around Greater New Bethel Baptist Church, a few blocks from their home, where Mrs. Byrd taught and her husband was a deacon.

''When the church doors opened on Sunday, we were there,'' said Mrs. Taylor, 50, who teaches eighth-grade science in the Houston public schools. ''There was school in the morning, then services, then Baptist Training Union, then church again at night. You knew what you'd be doing on Sundays.''

As a boy, Mr. Byrd was known in church more for the passion of his piano playing and singing than his faith. He could pick out any tune on the keyboard before he was 10, and was particularly adept at belting out spirituals and hymns, especially ''Walk With Me, Lord,'' and more recently the pop hit ''I Believe I Can Fly.'' He was the lead trumpeter in the band at Rowe Elementary School, and also did a more-than-passable imitation of Al Green.

But despite an excellent academic record at Jasper High School, he decided not to follow his two sisters into college, even though he was encouraged to do so by his parents. His friends and relatives speak vaguely and sadly of an aimless, drifting element to his life, an unwillingness to commit himself to a career or a passion.

''He was so very intelligent, and as his family we always regretted that he never used his intellectual potential to the highest capacity,'' said Mrs. Verrett, 47, a medical transcriptionist who lives in Houston. ''He wasn't the type of person who liked a 9-to-5 job. He would get in a rut, and then his personal difficulties would begin.''

The drinking started in high school, friends say, and was exacerbated by medical problems like arthritis. (He had also injured his foot in a bicycle accident in his youth, leading to his neighborhood nickname, Toe.) At some point, said the Rev. Kenneth O. Lyons, pastor of Greater New Bethel and a boyhood friend, Mr. Byrd lost his religious faith.

''I used to remind him that he was brought up in a Christian home, and that one day something like this could happen, and he would need an eternal life,'' Mr. Lyons said today, after a condolence call on the family. ''But, James, he would challenge me. He would say, if he came, he would have to be right, completely right, and he would have to be sincere. I would say, 'No one's perfect, James.' And he would just look at me with that old look of his.''

Mr. Byrd married a few years out of high school and stayed with his wife, on and off, for about 23 years, fathering three children: Renee Mullins, 27, who until recently served in the Army; Ross, 20, an Army private stationed at Fort Benning, Ga., who is scheduled to serve in South Korea in a few months, and Jamie, 16, who lives with her mother in Lufkin, Tex., about 50 miles away.

The marriage broke up in 1993, three years after Mr. Byrd was convicted of theft and sentenced to seven years in prison. He was paroled a few years later but sent back to prison for a violation, returning to Jasper in 1996. At that point, things seemed to begin to improve. Mr. Byrd entered Alcoholics Anonymous and began coming back to the church, Mr. Lyons said.

Using his disability money, Mr. Byrd got his own one-bedroom apartment in a housing project in Jasper, and his sisters came over to help decorate.

''He told me not to sit on the roll-away bed, because his son was coming to see him and would be sleeping there,'' said Mrs. Verrett, who had recently bought him a dinette set she was planning to give him. ''He was so proud of his children and wanted to protect them. He always told his daughters it was a jungle out there.''

But he never seemed to view his hometown that way. Many people in Jasper who did not know Mr. Byrd -- hundreds of whom were wearing yellow ribbons on their shirts on Thursday -- remembered seeing him meander through town, never putting together enough disability money to buy a used car, perfectly happy to walk if a friend did not pass by offering a ride.

No one knows why he would have got in that pickup truck on Sunday while walking home from a friend's house, although the police have theorized that he knew one of the three men accused of killing him because they had the same parole officer.

Just a few hours earlier, Mr. Byrd had stopped by to cut Mr. Thomas's yard and to see two of his children at a bridal shower for a niece at his parents' house. It was the last time he was seen by anyone who loved him, the last time the neighborhood was intact.

Helicopters now hover over East Jasper, television satellite trucks rumble over the rutted roads of the neighborhood, and when the phone rings, it is as likely to be the President of the United States as a weeping friend. Mrs. Taylor said President Clinton, who called her mother on Thursday, offered his deep sympathies and promised to see that justice was done in the case.

''We don't use the word 'hate' in our family,'' Mrs. Taylor said, when asked about the three men charged in the case. ''But those boys didn't get the way they were overnight.

''The only thing you can do is hope that all of this makes parents think about the moral values they're teaching their children. The way our parents taught us.''



Organizations mentioned in this article:

Related Terms:
Murders and Attempted Murders; Hate Crimes; Blacks


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