A Death in Texas: A Story of Race, Murder and a Small Town's Struggle for Redemption

Overview

"Before 1998 few Americans had ever heard of Jasper, Texas. That all changed on June 7, 1998, when a trio of young white men chained a forty-nine-year-old black man named James Byrd Jr. to the bumper of a truck and dragged him three miles down a country road. In the hours after Byrd's body was found in pieces on Huff Creek Road, Jasper's white community tried to believe that one of their own had not committed the crime. That hope was shattered when the trail of blood and evidence led directly to two local men, Bill King and Shawn Berry, and ...
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A Death in Texas: A Story of Race, Murder and a Small Town's Struggle for Redemption

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Overview

"Before 1998 few Americans had ever heard of Jasper, Texas. That all changed on June 7, 1998, when a trio of young white men chained a forty-nine-year-old black man named James Byrd Jr. to the bumper of a truck and dragged him three miles down a country road. In the hours after Byrd's body was found in pieces on Huff Creek Road, Jasper's white community tried to believe that one of their own had not committed the crime. That hope was shattered when the trail of blood and evidence led directly to two local men, Bill King and Shawn Berry, and King's former jailhouse companion Russell Brewer. Within twenty-four hours, Sheriff Billy Rowles had gotten a confession and the trio was charged with capital murder." From the initial investigation through the trials and their aftermath, A Death in Texas follows the turns of events through the eyes of Billy Rowles - an enlightened lawman determined to take lessons from the tragedy - and other townspeople trying to come to grips with the killing.

First-place winner, 2002 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, Nonfiction.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
In the summer of 1998, Americans were addicted to their daily dose of news about the president and a young Washington intern, when suddenly a very different news story penetrated their consciousness. In a small town in Texas, a 49-year-old black man was chained to a truck and dragged to his death by three white men. Almost overnight, we became familiar with the terms "Jasper, Texas," and "James Byrd Jr." And we wondered how such a vicious, gruesome act could occur in a civilized world.

Dina Temple-Raston aims to answer this question in her hard-hitting and compelling account. Beginning with the first portentous phone call to the local sheriff soon after Byrd's body was discovered, Temple-Raston takes a closer look at the underpinnings of this community steeped in "antebellum traditions." It's a community, she says, where white employers viewed their black workers "on the level of a favorite domesticated animal." Clearly, and with riveting detail, she recounts the murder and subsequent trials of the three assailants, introducing readers to a range of complex characters. With a straightforwardness that begs comparison to Truman Capote's classic murder chronicle In Cold Blood, Temple-Raston explores one of the most horrific -- and most significant -- moments in recent American history. (Winter 2002 Selection)

Publishers Weekly
This perceptive, grimly compelling account of the brutal 1998 murder of James Byrd in Jasper, Tex., is the first book on this nationally reported incident and a fine piece of journalistic reporting, covering the prosecution of Byrd's killers and the social and political aftermath for Jasper. On June 7, 1998, Byrd, a 49-year-old black man, was intentionally dragged behind a truck in such a way that his head and right arm were severed. Three white men were quickly arrested;. two were eventually sentenced to death and one to life imprisonment. Temple-Raston, a former foreign correspondent, uses this basic crime narrative as the backdrop for a complex, multilayered portrait of a small town coming to grips with its own history of racial hatred while simultaneously being thrust into the national limelight. Temple-Raston has a fine eye for detail: she documents how the town's lumber industry had historically abused black labor and mutilated black male bodies. Elsewhere, she presents the father of one of the killers remembering his brother's 1939 trial and acquittal for the murder of a gay man. And she captures the hysteria and fear that grip the town's population in the aftermath: the black community wonders what they might have done to prevent this; a policeman complains that Byrd was "the town drunk." Unsparing in her examination of the race hatred that led to the crime-two of the men were members of "Christian Identity" white supremacist groups-Temple-Raston is extraordinarily nuanced in exploring how poor, white men (often in prison) are drawn to this horrific ideology. Through a plethora of telling moments here, Temple-Raston painfully explores and exposes the lives of her subjects and the complications of hate and prejudice in the U.S. (Jan.)
Simon Winchester
. . . likely to be a classic, unforgettably chilling and precise. This is a book that leaves fingerprints on the mind.
From The Critics
We'll probably always remember the 1998 murder of James Byrd, even if we forget his name. An African-American man was chained to the bumper of a truck and dragged three miles down a paved road to his death. The focus of this skillfully written book is the economically depressed East Texas town of Jasper, the place that spawned the horror, and the community struggling to move ahead. The author recounts how outsiders flooded Jasper after the murder. During one melee, a militant from Houston was "being filmed by a Klansman who was being filmed by police, all of whom were being filmed by the media." We're lucky that Temple-Raston stayed around long enough to write this fascinating book.
—Ruth Lopez

Publishers Weekly
This perceptive, grimly compelling account of the brutal 1998 murder of James Byrd in Jasper, Tex., is the first book on this nationally reported incident and a fine piece of journalistic reporting, covering the prosecution of Byrd's killers and the social and political aftermath for Jasper. On June 7, 1998, Byrd, a 49-year-old black man, was intentionally dragged behind a truck in such a way that his head and right arm were severed. Three white men were quickly arrested;. two were eventually sentenced to death and one to life imprisonment. Temple-Raston, a former foreign correspondent, uses this basic crime narrative as the backdrop for a complex, multilayered portrait of a small town coming to grips with its own history of racial hatred while simultaneously being thrust into the national limelight. Temple-Raston has a fine eye for detail: she documents how the town's lumber industry had historically abused black labor and mutilated black male bodies. Elsewhere, she presents the father of one of the killers remembering his brother's 1939 trial and acquittal for the murder of a gay man. And she captures the hysteria and fear that grip the town's population in the aftermath: the black community wonders what they might have done to prevent this; a policeman complains that Byrd was "the town drunk." Unsparing in her examination of the race hatred that led to the crime two of the men were members of "Christian Identity" white supremacist groups Temple-Raston is extraordinarily nuanced in exploring how poor, white men (often in prison) are drawn to this horrific ideology. Through a plethora of telling moments here, Temple-Raston painfully explores and exposes the lives of her subjects and thecomplications of hate and prejudice in the U.S. (Jan.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Temple-Raston, a USA Today correspondent, investigates the dragging murder of James Byrd Jr. and its aftermath for a small Texas town. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A grimly powerful chronicle of a hate crime, the grisly murder of James Byrd Jr., and the soul-searching that resulted for the residents of Jasper, Texas. Long past its prime as a prosperous lumbering town, Jasper had become by June 7, 1998, "a place where most people stopped just long enough to lick a postage stamp." Despite a recently elected black mayor, its African-American community felt economically disenfranchised. These economic and racial tensions rose to the surface when news spread that the 49-year-old Byrd had been beaten, chained to a pickup, and dragged several miles. The killers were quickly identified: Bill King, a local resident sporting white supremacist tattoos; Russell Brewer, King's prison buddy; and Shawn Berry, manager of the local movie theater. Relying on extensive interviews and local historical research, USA Today correspondent Temple-Raston examines not only the investigation and trial, but also the reactions of a town facing hordes of unwelcome politicians and reporters. She effectively sketches individuals from all parts of the community: the killers, a funeral director, King's anguished father, an octogenarian attorney who had represented Jack Ruby, the town prosecutor, and, most of all, Sheriff Billy Rowles, the de facto moral center of this story. Hoping to preserve the town's reputation, blacks and whites presented a united front before the world. Scene by scene, the author shows the two races sharing equal time at press conferences, heading off a confrontation between Ku Klux Klan members and black separatists, and tearing down the fence separating white and black sections of a cemetery. But after the guilty were sentenced and apologies forracism were made, life in Jasper assumed much of its old pattern. One of the final searing images here is of high school students, the day after the King trial, segregating themselves by race for an assembly celebrating Black History Month. Not just a painstaking anatomy of a murder, but of the intractable difficulties in resolving America's ongoing racial dilemma.
From the Publisher
"With its first-class reporting of what is undeniably a first-class-if appalling-American story, A Death in Texas is likely to be a classic, unforgettably chilling and precise. This is a book that leaves fingerprints on the mind."-Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman and The Map That Changed the World
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805072778
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 12/18/2002
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 5.52 (w) x 8.22 (h) x 0.92 (d)

Meet the Author

Dina Temple-Raston

Dina Temple-Raston spent her early journalism career as a foreign correspondent in China and Hong Kong and was a longtime White House reporter for Bloomberg Business News. This is her first book. She lives in New York City.

Good To Know

Temple-Raston told us that her first job "was at an ice cream parlor called Hopton's Hot Fudge Factory in Northern California and our favorite ice cream to scoop was Thin Mint, because we could pick out big chunks of chocolate and pop them into mouths when no one was watching."

She also let us in on some of her favorite pastimes: "I sail a one-design sailboat called an International 505 and race it up and down the East Coast. I also run, ski, and play golf, badly."

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      August 25, 1965
    2. Place of Birth:
      Brussels, Belgium
    1. Education:
      B.A., Northwestern University, 1986; Degree in Chinese Language, Iaoning University, Shenyang, China, 1989

Read an Excerpt

Death has a way of making even slow people hurry. It scares them into seeing things the way they are, instead of the way they wish them to be. Even small deaths people don't expect to notice, or welcome deaths, which end hard-luck lives or long, painful illnesses, sweep mourners backwards through rooms they have been avoiding for years. So when the black community in Jasper, Texas, awoke one Sunday morning to hear one of its own had been killed in some awful way on Huff Creek Road, the phones began to ring. Ladies who had come to church early, ahead of the Sunday services, abandoned the hymnals in messy stacks and began counting noses. They called relatives, and friends, and friends of friends to see if their men were home, safe, or whether it might be one of their kin dumped on the side of an old timber road.

It was a little after nine a.m. when Sheriff Billy Rowles received the call from the dispatcher about the body. His first thought was a routine hit-and-run-a commonplace accident on the unlit roads on the outskirts of town.

Deputy Joe Sterling, a baby-faced officer, had come on the line a little breathless.

"It's a bad one, Sheriff."

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Table of Contents

Prologue 1
Ch. 1 Dante's Inferno 11
Ch. 2 Jasper, Texas 29
Ch. 3 'Ain't Nothing We Can Do" 55
Ch. 4 Young Men, Go Home 69
Ch. 5 Joe Tonahill's Texas 97
Ch. 6 Small Conspiracies 113
Ch. 7 Outsiders Come to Jasper 135
Ch. 8 Beneath the Surface 153
Ch. 9 Hook, Line, and Sinker 177
Ch. 10 Blood In, Blood Out 189
Ch. 11 "My Little Town Stood Up" 211
Ch. 12 Death Town, U.S.A. 231
Ch. 13 The More Things Change 249
Epilogue 267
Notes on Sources 277
Acknowledgments 301
Index 305
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 17, 2002

    the way it's told

    she told the story the way it is told. and the way she put the story together was different but I really like the book. for her first big book she was good and I am only 13

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 7, 2002

    A murder, and a story, to be remembered

    A Death in Texas draws you deep into the stifled aspirations, collective malaise and misplaced hatred in Jasper, Texas. This narrative of small town life and the gruesome murder of James Byrd is both irresistible and almost unbearable. While not sure at times that I really wanted to know more about the very real evil that threads through the story, I couldn't put this book down. A native of a Jasper-like town might portray things differently, but Temple-Raston's take on the story is carefully balanced and clearly well researched, and her attention to detail is a real pleasure for the reader. Anyone interested in the anachronisms of race relations in pockets of modern America will be fascinated by A Death in Texas.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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