I’m not quite sure how I managed to miss the case of James Byrd. But, I did. Last night, we watched the brilliant and chilling documentary, Two Towns of Jasper.
My sleep was more than a little disturbed.
Despite a lynching that took place nearly 20 years ago, this film and the reality of events surrounding James Byrd’s slaughter remain relevant today. I suspect this is why PBS’s POV chose an encore airing in August of this real-life horror story.
We need look no further than Charlottesville and the public boastings of folks like David Duke and Richard Spencer to understand that far too many individuals would welcome such ‘opportunities’.
But, perhaps the more troubling aspect of towns like Jasper are the words of those interviewed in Two Towns. A white man relaying that he doesn’t understand what changed, whereby ‘nigger’ is now considered a derogatory or unacceptable term for a black individual. By his own account, there’s nothing wrong with that word, as those sitting around the same table nod in agreement. A white woman at that same table makes claims that ‘James Byrd was no model citizen of Jasper’, to collective, murmured agreement. The implication is clear: maybe his death was brutal, but it wasn’t like he didn’t have it coming to him.
Perhaps the worst moments in this film were not related to the trials of those accused or the outcomes for those miserable humans who carried out a truly gruesome attack on another human being. The worst moment for me was when the local school board decided to adjust the academic calendar, and render Martin Luther King Jr Day as a make up day for days lost during the school year. They rendered MLK Day expendable, whilst the Jasper rodeo remained a day off from school. A fucking rodeo.
The board reinstated the holiday, but only after significant opposition. Reverend Ray Charles Lewis says it best: ‘It’s easier for whites to forget,’ he noted.
My family is from a town very much like Jasper. And, I grew up listening and being outraged by some of the same comments and reflections made around various tables as those made by the white residents of Jasper. Sadly, those conversations or ideas are nothing new to me, I suppose.
But, that doesn’t make it right and nothing will change unless those of us with power speak up when we hear / bear witness to such archaic notions and prejudices. Whilst everyone may have prejudices, as yet another white Jasperian claims, we don’t have to accept them as honourable or acceptable. Particularly not today.
We all have a responsibility to stand up and stop an injustice when we see it happen. We all have a duty to our fellow humans to call out those who feel justified in using derogatory and demeaning labels to characterise others. We all must stand up and defend those being beaten and thrashed, whether by words or fists, for simple being different.
Most of all, we all must speak up, particularly when our voices shake the most. Because that’s when it matters most.