HOUSTON -- Sit for a spell on the Byrd family’s porch in Jasper, and you’ll learn a lesson about the quality of mercy.
“My father and mother instilled that inside of us,” Betty Boatner said. “What purpose you get out of hating, you know?”
She sat next to her father on a porch swing, rubbing the old man’s shoulders and talking to him in simple sentences. James Byrd Sr. always loved sitting on his porch. He’s 85 years old now and he’s afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, so he can’t speak for himself.
But his daughter, Betty, knows in her heart what he wants her to say.
“My parents taught us how to forgive,” she said. “And so we forgave him.”
The forgiveness was for Lawrence Brewer, the man who faces the death penalty Wednesday night for the murder of her brother.
One of the children raised in that small house in Jasper was James Byrd Jr., whose savage murder shook the conscience of the nation. One hot night in June 1998, three young men used a logging chain to drag Byrd along a dark country road until his body was ripped apart.
Now, on the eve of the first execution scheduled for one of his killers, Byrd’s family is sending out a message of absolution.
“I had to forgive because if I didn’t, hate would eat me up just like it ate him up,” Boatner said. “And I refuse to live the life like that. Life is too precious to just be consumed with hate.”
That might seem remarkable, given the horrifying circumstances surrounding Byrd’s death. But it echoes the long-standing sentiments of his mother, who called for peace and calm in the tense days after the killing. She died last October, but her surviving children inherited their mother’s tolerance.
“For my mother to sit in front of the cameras before the world and tell the world, ‘No violence, we want peace,’ that was awesome,” Boatner said. “And if she was right here today, she would still say she wants peace.”
One of the killers, John William King, wrote rambling diatribes indicating he hoped to trigger a racial war in southeast Texas. But after all these years, it’s clear that his ugly crime had the opposite effect.
“When it happened, Jasper came together,” Boatner said. “And you talk about the outpouring of love! Color didn’t matter. Everybody that you know or didn’t know, they was here consoling the family, helping out. Color didn’t matter.”
As Brewer lies strapped to a gurney at the Walls Unit in Huntsville Wednesday evening, a group of people in Jasper plan to gather in a park named after James Byrd Jr. While the world focuses on the death chamber in Huntsville, they plan to pray.
Meanwhile, another memorial sits next to the Byrd family’s home, just a few steps away from the front porch. It’s a glass case containing mementoes of his life and the worldwide outpouring of emotion over his death. A small sign over the case identifies it as the James Byrd Jr. Museum.
His relatives built it themselves to insure that Byrd will be remembered long after his killers are forgiven and forgotten.