Justice in Jasper offers little comfort

/ Racist convicted: Guilty verdict won't guarantee an end to hate crimes and bigotry.

February 25, 1999

THE CASE against John William King was open and shut. The victim's blood was found on his sandals. A motive was as clear as the racist tattoos that adorn almost every inch of his torso.

The jury deliberated a little more than two hours Tuesday before finding King guilty in the June 7 murder of James Byrd Jr. The Jasper, Texas man was killed because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But mostly, as a black man, he was killed because he was the wrong color.

Three white men who said they were giving Mr. Byrd a ride home beat him, chained him to their truck, and dragged him until his head was ripped off. It was one of this nation's most heinous racial crimes since lynchings went out of style.

King's conviction suggests similar verdicts in the upcoming trials of his two co-defendants. This should be comforting. But their crime is unlikely to be the last of such despicable acts.

Mr. Byrd's death and last October's slaying of Matthew Shepard -- a gay University of Wyoming freshman who was savagely beaten -- were merely the extremes among the thousands of hate crimes committed each year.

For every King who is convicted, hundreds get away with lesser crimes. They slash the tires of interracial couples. They put trash on the lawns of Jews.

Like King, some are members of the 537 hate groups identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights organization. Many log on to the more than 250 white-supremacist computer Web sites. Most keep their racism to themselves.

With King's conviction, some civil rights leaders say it's time to strengthen hate-crime laws. Perhaps some misdemeanors should be made felonies. But there are already adequate laws for murder.

New laws won't stop racial hatred. To do that requires teaching tolerance, the slogan of the Southern Poverty Law Center. That nonprofit group has developed a curriculum being used in 7,000 schools to help young people appreciate their differences.

Reaching children before they grow up to hate is the most promising way to stop hate crimes. That lesson was obvious 36 years ago when four little black girls died in a Birmingham, Ala., church bombing set by racists. The lesson is just as clear today.

Pub Date: 2/25/99

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