Content Warning: This article contains graphic descriptions of hate crimes and a brutal murder of a Black man James Byrd. Jr. at the hands of white racists.
The summer James Byrd Jr. was murdered, I was seventeen years old.
James was a forty-nine-year-old man in Jasper, Texas, a town just two-and-a-half hours away from my hometown in Texas.
One Sunday morning in June, James was walking home from his parents’ house when three White men pulled up next to him. One of them, Shawn Berry, was an acquaintance of his, so when they offered him a ride home, James accepted. You guessed it—he did not make it home.
The three men, Lawrence Brewer, Shawn Berry, and John King, did the unspeakable, instead of taking him home. They took James to a field, where they beat him and treated his body like a common rest stop bathroom. They spray painted his face, urinated and defecated on his body. This alone would have been enough to traumatize a severely wounded James for the rest of his life, but that wasn’t enough for the men.
King was a member of a racist organization and needed to prove himself with the murder of a Black person, so they chained James to the back of their pickup truck and went on a horrific torture ride.
Swerving the truck from right to left, they drug James three-and-a-half miles along a logging road. His skin and blood left a trail in over eighty-one places for officials to find, and even though he fought for his life until the very end, trying to hold his head up as it slammed against the road, when he hit the edge of a culvert his arm and head were severed from his body.
The men then continued to drag the remains of his torso all the way to the cemetery reserved for Black people in Jasper, where James was found the next day.
What happened to James Byrd was so gruesome and so horrible that in 2008, President Obama passed a hate crime prevention act named after him and another man who was also violently assaulted and killed.
I found out about James Byrd’s death on the news.
Seventeen years old and stunned at this modern-day lynching, I looked over to my father sitting next to me watching the news coverage and studying the picture of James, and all I could think was, “He looks like Uncle Morris . . . he looks like Daddy’s younger brother.” My father, a man known for his stoicism, rested his hands on his head as tears formed in the corners of his eyes. Then I wondered, “Does he see his brother . . . or does he see himself?”
I honestly thought these kinds of things didn’t happen anymore. Not in 1998, not in the age of colorblindness and melting-pot cartoons played for me on PBS about this great nation of tolerance. Not in a church that is admittedly mostly White but we have a few Blacks and “Mexicans” (the embarrassing shorthand I learned as a Texan for all people of Latino descent).
And these guys didn’t look like Klansmen or White supremacists, they looked like regular Joes who grill on the weekends and drink beers on their porches and dance with their honeys under a starlit southern sky.
White people don’t do these things anymore, right? And if they do, they do them under the covering of a hateful hood.
This was one of the first times I realized that being Black was not only a liability, it could get me killed. The color of my skin makes me an easy target to someone who never talks about the systemic reality of white supremacy and the dangerous implications of unexamined biases.
I often wonder what would make a White person cauterize their empathy so completely that they would dismiss the emotional, spiritual, and physical pain of a person of color.
I think it’s because the racial reconciliation movement of the 1980s and ’90s that the American church bought wholesale emphasized a unity without sacrificial Christlike love.
It never asked the White people in my church to experience discomfort for more than a couple of hours a year of preaching about race relations. It substituted mission trips to Africa for authentically caring about the Black members in their church.
If there were stories of victory in overcoming racism, it was always in some other church or community and we’d wear their testimony like a secondhand frock so as to never be asked to take up our unique mantle of addressing the racism in our very pews. I once heard a Korean theologian describe this interpersonal-focused, systematic-downplaying form of racial reconciliation as “hug a Black friend.”
But looking back, I didn’t want hugs, I wanted justice. I wanted justice for James. I wanted justice for every time a White teacher refused to say my name on the first day of school because it’s “too difficult.” I wanted justice for the school secretary who put me in remedial English even though I tested into AP.
I wanted justice for the anxiety I carried every time my brother got in his car—in addition to our mistrust of the local police, I knew my brother’s unaddressed mental health issues caused him to blow up at a moment’s notice and I worried that if he got pulled over at just the wrong time, he might offend the wrong officer and never come home again.
I wanted the White people who loved me to show they truly did by being willing to enter into my pain.
I spent the whole week after watching the news with my dad grieving James Byrd. I couldn’t eat or sleep. I asked my mom to leave work early every day to pick me up from school because I was terrified of walking home by myself. I hugged my dad and older brother extra long that week. I didn’t talk to a single White person—not even my friends.
I couldn’t get over the fact that James Byrd knew and trusted Shawn Berry— were any White people safe? Do all White people hide hatred behind their smiles? What might I possibly do that would unleash their desire to see me dragged and torn to pieces?
I spent that whole week anxious about going to church.
Something deep down inside told me that my church would not say a single thing about James Byrd’s murder. I was hopeful, but naively so.
We talked about the discomfort of following Jesus all the time. How Jesus will ask us to be perfect as he is perfect. How God desires us to give cheerfully and generously because that tears down the idols of greed in our heart. How we fast from food, TV, and shopping so that we can show we have mastery over our bodies and wills, that we are not ruled by the tawdry, temporary things of this world.
I wanted to know what my White pastor would say in the face of such a horrendous death. What would he do? Could he lead the church to acknowledge that what happened to James wasn’t a fluke but another flare-up of the chronic disease of white supremacy? Would he say a prayer for James’s family and renounce the acts of those three Texas brothers?
He didn’t say a single thing. No one said anything.
Not the pastor or my Sunday school teacher or my trusted mentors or the door greeters in the church saying “God is good, Osheta” as I passed by them to find my seat in the sanctuary. There were no moments of silence for James in the service, only the expectant pause as we waited for the appropriate response to proclaiming God’s goodness . . . “all the time.”
“God is good . . . all the time.”
“God is good . . . all the time.”
“God is good . . . all the time.”
I remember mumbling that phrase over and over again that Sunday, as is the Pentecostal way of passing the peace, and every time I thought, “God is good for you because you’re White. Was God good for James?”
Where was the sacrificial love of White people having an honest moment in our polished service to show love to the Black members in pain?
Where was the mastery of their anxiety of saying the wrong thing?
Where was their rejection of the idols they erected to the God of Comfort and where, Dear White Peacemaker, was their allegiance to Jesus, the one acquainted with rejection, the Wounded Healer, the Prince of Peace?
The cross is really beautiful in the sanitized glory of resurrection morning, but I was standing at Golgotha watching my hopes of a safe future in this body die a horrific death. And there were no witnesses to my pain and the systemic violence that caused it.
Our pastor got up after an extended worship set where we sang “You Are Awesome in This Place,” and he preached (again) about living holiness.
And all I kept thinking was, “God, you are not awesome in this place, because I am grieving, and no one is paying attention. And God, if holiness means ignoring or over spiritualizing the suffering of others to preserve some measure of self-righteousness, then you won’t get that from me!”
I was tired of being in a Christian context crafted for White people because we didn’t have honest conversations about race.
And at that tender age of seventeen, because of the church’s silence on race and racism, I built a wall to protect me from White people. Because of well-meaning White Christians who refused to talk about race and acknowledge the influence of white supremacy, I decided that it was not safe for me to grieve any type of racially charged death.
But here’s what happened in my heart, Peacemaker, that built the scaffolding for a lack of empathy for White people: I then believed that if there was to be any kind of racial healing in this country, then White people would not, and maybe even could not, be a significant part of bringing it to bear, because they simply couldn’t care enough within the ease of their Whiteness. When given the power and ability they’d rather see Black men beaten and dragged to death behind a pickup truck than work together with people of color or care about our pain caused by white supremacy.
They’d be unwilling to acknowledge that racism is not a personal posture problem, it’s not an individualized sin-bent, but a pandemic that needs to be treated. White Peacemaker, you need to reach herd immunity to the virus of white supremacy, and you won’t get there unless you acknowledge it and take steps to address it.
Excerpted from Dear White Peacemakers: Dismantling Racism with Grit and Grace by Osheta Moore. ©2021 Herald Press. Used with permission. www.heraldpress.com.