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In Wake of Texas Killing, Black Militants and Klan Trade Words, Not Blows

In Wake of Texas Killing, Black Militants and Klan Trade Words, Not Blows


Despite fears of violence, a showdown between white supremacists and black militants remained relatively peaceful here on Jasper's lovely courthouse square, leaving residents feeling relieved, but used.

Racial name-calling and threats were as bad as it got on a sweltering day in this East Texas town, where a black man, James Byrd Jr., was dragged to death behind a pickup truck three weeks ago.

''It's wrong for either of them to be here,'' Joyce Edmond, a black woman, said of the two groups. Like many here, and other residents who stayed away from the square, she said the two groups were just using the tragedy to get attention for themselves.

Ringed by state troopers wearing face shields and bullet-proof vests, about 25 robed and hooded Ku Klux Klan members from Waco and Vidor gave speeches peppered with racial slurs. The Klansmen had said beforehand that they were coming to Jasper to disavow any connection with the three men charged in the grisly killing of Mr. Byrd, 49.

For more than two hours, about 200 law enforcement officers kept the Klansmen separated from about 50 members of the Black Muslims of Houston and New Black Panthers of Dallas. The militants had arrived in town with trunkloads of guns, which some members carried through the streets. Although it is legal in Texas to carry a loaded weapon in public, police did not allow any guns on courthouse grounds.

A dozen militants twice tried to break through the police barricades.

One of them, Khalid Muhammad, a former spokesman for the Nation of Islam, tried to get onlookers in the crowd -- members of the media easily outnumbered the 200 spectators -- to join in their attempts to overcome police and get at the Klan members.

No one was hurt, but two men, one white and one black, were arrested for disorderly conduct.

Onlookers at times broke out laughing at what seemed to them to be comedy. They laughed when the Klan's taped country music kept going off, and laughed when one of the Black Muslims chased a carload of departing Klansmen on foot.

The Klansmen said they were there to protect whites from the New Black Panthers and Black Muslims. The militants said they were there to protect blacks from the Klan.

But the message was typical of traditional Klan rallies, as the speakers warned of black conspiracies, dwindling white political influence and cover-ups by the media.

''Jasper is part of the Invisible Empire,'' said Rick Anderson, a leader of the Knights of the White Kamellia, a klavern based in Vidor.

A small group of whites in the crowd, most of them from outside of Jasper, applauded and cheered the Klan's speeches, but was drowned out by the jeers of others, white and black.

The Black Muslims and Panthers urged black people in the crowd to retaliate with violence for the murder of Mr. Byrd, who was killed on an isolated road outside of Jasper. Several black people in the crowd cheered them, including some young people who said the claims by older blacks that Jasper has no real, prevalent racial oppression were false.

''There will be Jasper people under those hoods,'' said Kenny Brumley, 28, of Jasper.

As the Klan members, Black Muslims and New Black Panthers prepared to meet on the grounds of the old courthouse, Mr. Byrd's family, as it has all through this ordeal, issued an appeal for peace.

''Let this horrendous violation of the sanctity of life not be a spark that ignites more hatred and retribution,'' wrote the family in a statement handed out late Friday. ''Rather, let this be a wake-up call for America, for all Americans. Let it spark a cleansing fire of self-examination and reflection.''

Klan members had said that this rally was intended to distance the organization from Mr. Byrd's murder. Texas prison officials have said that two of the men charged in Mr. Byrd's slaying, John William King, 23, of Jasper, and Lawrence Russell Brewer, 31, of Sulphur Springs, had ties to white supremacy groups.

Shawn Allen Berry, 23, of Jasper, is also facing charges in the killing.

Mr. Brewer and Mr. King had been linked in the past to the Confederate Knights of America, a loosely defined prison gang that is aligned with the Klan. Both men, prison officials said, have tattoos that mark them as white supremacists, and Mr. King was disciplined in prison in 1995 for a racial disturbance between white and Hispanic inmates.

Most of Jasper's 8,000 residents dreaded the confrontation, and have repeatedly begged outsiders to let them try to cope with the tragedy on their own. Jasper, which is about 45 percent black, has drawn praise around the country for keeping its calm in the days after the killing.

As the groups talked and gesticulated, the three men accused of Mr. Byrd's killing sat in a Jasper County cellblock, waiting to see if the murder charges against them, which carry a life sentence, will be upgraded to capital murder, which could bring a death sentence. Prosecutors are expected to charge Mr. King and Mr. Brewer with capital murder.

Mr. Berry, who owned the pickup, has been the only one to cooperate with investigators. Much of what state and Federal investigators learned about the night of Mr. Byrd's killing was from a lengthy statement from Mr. Berry.

Mr. Berry, who, after a bungled burglary, was incarcerated with Mr. King in a prison boot camp, told investigators that the men were driving through Jasper at about 2 A.M. on June 7 when they saw Mr. Byrd walking at the side of the road.

Mr. Berry gave Mr. Byrd a ride in back of the truck, which angered Mr. King. Mr. Berry said Mr. King took the wheel from him, and drove to a dark road outside of town, where Mr. King and Mr. Brewer beat and kicked Mr. Byrd, according to Mr. Berry's account.

Mr. Byrd, who was severely beaten first, was chained by his ankles to the bumper of the truck and dragged until his body came apart. Investigators marked more than two miles of the road with red circles of paint, showing where they found Mr. Byrd's head, his dentures, one arm and several smears of blood.

As much as they dreaded the confrontations of groups such as those at the courthouse today, many people here said they expected them because of the hideous nature of the crime.

''We never had anything like this here, until now,'' Ms. Edmond said. She said both sides in the confrontation should look to the Bible.

She was just one of many who said they wanted all the television cameras and those who would take advantage of them to go home. At one point today, all the camera operators could not even fit in the walkways as they chased one Black Muslim leader around the courthouse. One of them stepped into a flower bed.

''Please stay out of the flowers,'' one woman yelled from the crowd, shaking her head.

Organizations mentioned in this article:
Ku Klux Klan; Black Muslims (Orgn)

Related Terms:
Murders and Attempted Murders; Blacks; Demonstrations and Riots

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