TEXAS VIEW: James Byrd’s murder shows why Confederate holiday should endTHE POINT: Many African-Americans and others view commemorations of the Confederacy as endorsements of the historical subjugation of black people.

The execution last week of John William King for the 1998 lynching of James Byrd Jr., who was chained to a pickup truck and dragged to death, won’t bring the victim back to life. It won’t erase the heartbreak of the loved ones Byrd left behind. Neither will it remove the stain that the atrocity left on the East Texas town of Jasper, where the murder occurred. So, what purpose will King’s execution serve?
King’s death by injection occurred less than two weeks after a white man was arrested for setting fire to three black churches in Louisiana. The proximity of those events makes one wonder if race relations have changed since Byrd was lynched. Clearly there have been improvements in the past 21 years, but the FBI says hate crimes in America, most of them motivated by race or ethnicity, have increased. Few compare to what happened to Byrd.
While walking home late at night, he accepted a ride from three white guys in a pickup. The driver was Shawn Berry. The other two, King and Lawrence Russell Brewer, had been members of a skinhead prison gang called the Confederate Knights of America. They attacked Byrd, beat him into submission, wrapped one end of a chain around his ankles, the other end to the truck’s ball, and dragged him for three miles. Part of Byrd’s body was found near a cemetery; the rest a mile and a half up the road.
It wasn’t hard for police to find Byrd’s assailants. They clumsily left evidence where it was easily found. All three men were convicted of capital murder. Brewer was executed in 2011. Berry, who cooperated with authorities, was sentenced to life in prison and will be eligible for parole in 2038. King’s fate was set after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a last-minute appeal last Wednesday evening.
King was a walking, talking advertisement for racism. His many body tattoos included a black man hanging from a tree, a robed Ku Klux Klansman, a swastika, and the words “Aryan Pride.” Prosecutors said King was as an “exalted cyclops” of the Confederate Knights of America and recruited white troops for an imagined race war.
Did King’s execution have a purpose other than vengeance? Executions usually don’t. Research has shown them to also be poor deterrents to future crimes. Capital punishment has more to do with retribution than justice. But King’s execution could be different. That’s if his story of unbridled racism could be used to bury the misguided notion that memorials and traditions honoring the Confederate States of America should be treated with reverence.
Klan and skinhead groups use emblems that link them to the Confederacy for a specific reason: Like them, the rebel states were united by racism. Failing to preserve slavery, the former Confederate states continued to treat black people as inferior to whites by enacting segregation laws that stayed on the books into the 1960s.
Many African-Americans and others view commemorations of the Confederacy as endorsements of the historical subjugation of black people. That doesn’t mean other folks can’t be proud of their ancestors. They were fighting for a racist cause, but most were soldiers, not murderers like King and two others who killed Byrd. That pride, however, shouldn’t be endorsed by state governments whose citizens also include people who aren’t descendants of Confederate soldiers and sympathizers.