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Speakers Stress Racial Healing At Service for Dragging Victim

Speakers Stress Racial Healing At Service for Dragging Victim


In an overflowing Baptist church where his small-town family shared pews with big-city politicians, James Byrd Jr. began his odyssey today from victim of a gruesome racial slaying to symbol of the nation's need for racial healing.

Speaker after speaker at Mr. Byrd's funeral said his death last Sunday -- which the authorities say came at the hands of three white men who beat him and dragged him in chains from a moving pickup truck, dismembering his body -- should bring whites and blacks together in outrage and determination to end racial violence.

''Dr. King would say that unearned suffering is redemptive, that there's power in the blood of the innocent,'' said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has been at the side of the Byrd family for most of the week. ''Brother Byrd's innocent blood alone could very well be the blood that changes the course of our country, because no one has captured the nation's attention like this tragedy.''

Mr. Jackson said that Mr. Byrd had entered the pantheon of the nation's racial martyrs and victims, and he proposed that the town of Jasper erect a monument in his memory as a tangible protest against hate crimes.

Several of the politicians and national black leaders who spoke acknowledged that Mr. Byrd's family was uncomfortable with the idea of turning him into a national symbol, and would have preferred to have had a quieter service without the political rallying cries. But they said the need to invest this death with meaning was too great.

''We know, Clara, that you wanted to be left alone,'' said Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, referring to one of Mr. Byrd's sisters, Clara Taylor. ''But we can't. We have to be with you. We have to be with this family and we have to be here in Jasper. Because we can ill afford to have what has happened here happen any place else across this land.''

The Byrd family had already given up its hope for a truly private funeral, although it did ban reporters and photographers from Greater New Bethel Baptist Church, where Mr. Byrd's father is a deacon and his mother a Sunday school teacher. Only 200 people could fit in the sanctuary, leaving 600 others to listen to a public-address system outside.

Most of the speakers -- including Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican, and Representative Maxine Waters, a California Democrat who serves as chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus -- had never met Mr. Byrd, an unemployed 49-year-old man whose ambles about this town of 8,000 made him a familiar figure to many of its black residents. Neither had many of the black mourners who came from around Texas, or the presidents of regional N.A.A.C.P. chapters, or advocates like the Rev. Al Sharpton from New York.

But the random brutality of Mr. Byrd's death seemed to strike both fear and a sense of responsibility in many black leaders, several of whom said any member of the community could have been similarly violated.

One of the few speakers who knew Mr. Byrd well was the pastor of the church, the Rev. Kenneth O. Lyons, who grew up across the street from the Byrd family in east Jasper. Alone among those who spoke, he declined to make his old neighbor into an explicit symbol, instead preaching an old-fashioned eulogy in answer to a question Mr. Byrd asked him long ago about the message of his church.

''We need to talk Jesus,'' Mr. Lyons said, to rousing responses from the audience inside and out. ''We tried everything else, so brothers and sisters, we need to try Jesus.'' He made only an indirect reference to the violence of the crime when he reminded his listeners that Herod had beheaded John the Baptist.

There were several white residents at the funeral, and throughout the day, many townspeople wore yellow ribbons and kept their car headlights on. Flags in Jasper, which is about 30 percent black, flew at half staff at several shopping strips. But later in the day there was a reminder that not everyone was viewing Mr. Byrd's death with the resolute serenity asked for in the church.

About 15 black men dressed in paramilitary uniforms and carrying rifles and shotguns marched from the sheriff's office into Mr. Byrd's neighborhood, urging black residents to arm themselves.The group of gang members, followers of the Nation of Islam and members of an organization calling itself the New Black Panthers, was led by Khallid Muhammad of New York, a former aide to Minister Louis Farrakhan. They drew little attention from Mr. Byrd's neighbors, who preferred to remember a gentle friend in the way his family most desired.

Organizations mentioned in this article:

Related Terms:
Murders and Attempted Murders; Blacks; Hate Crimes

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