DINA TEMPLE-RASTON KNOWS REJECTION. It took the journalist seventeen proposals to convince publishers that A Death In Texas: A Story of Race, Murder, and a Small Town’s Struggle for Redemption (Henry Holt and Company, 2002) was a story that hadn’t been told. Her book chronicles the town of Jasper as it deals with issues of race and segregation after the dragging death of James Byrd, Jr., on June 7, 1998.
A “Yankee,” Temple-Raston approached Jasper as an outsider working her way in, armed with only a newspaper clipping that discussed how race relations in Jasper had improved after the Byrd dragging. Temple-Raston wanted to investigate that article’s claim. Before traveling to the East Texas town, she approached a fellow White House correspondent from Arkansas for advice on Southern culture. Her friend suggested a few fashion changes, as well as a secret phrase that could help her with difficult sources: “Don’t worry. Maybe we can help each other down the road.” The saying opened more doors for Temple-Raston than she could have imagined. After contacting Ronald King, the father of perpetrator Bill King, for an interview, those two sentences got him to agree to meet with Temple-Raston and to pour out his soul to her for forty-five minutes.
Her book, like that interview, is extremely intimate, taking the reader into homes and businesses where racism in all its forthright and subtle forms has dwelled for years. I spoke with Temple-Raston at a meet-the-author event hosted by BookPeople in Austin and e-mailed her my questions to get her thoughts on her first book.
texasmonthly.com: You were a foreign correspondent in Asia, the White House reporter for the Bloomberg Business News, and a correspondent for USA Today. Most of your writing has been in the field of business and economy, so this book is very different from your work in the past. What drew you into this story?
Dina Temple-Raston: Actually, I don’t see A Death in Texas as such a departure from what I’ve done before. I did a lot of cultural and social reporting when I was in China in the late eighties and that helped me a lot in my reporting when I arrived in Jasper. I decided early on that I was going to try to cover Jasper just as I would a foreign country—after all I wasn’t a Texan. As a result, over the course of two and one-half years I read everything I could lay my hands on about Jasper and Texas history. Just as I learned about the Chinese by studying their culture, I focused on Texas culture and its mores, and that allowed me to build the book from the ground up. The goal was to find out why the James Byrd murder happened in Jasper. Was it a fluke or was there something there that made this a crime just waiting to happen? What I eventually discovered was that this kind of murder could have happened anywhere, and it happened in Jasper because there was a lethal combination of prejudice, unemployment, boredom, and opportunity. I think people assume the book is about a murder. It isn’t. It is really the story of a place and its people and the way they reacted when they were forced to take a long look at themselves and their attitudes about race.
texasmonthly.com: Out of all of the characters in your book, I found it interesting that James Byrd, Jr., is always there as the story unfolds, but that in some ways, the story isn’t really about him. It discusses the hate crime and its perpetrators more than the victim. Was that intentional when you started? Why did you choose that focus?
DTR: I knew from the start that a book rehashing the Byrd murder wouldn’t have much of an audience. It was too grim. The book had to be about something bigger, and it had to be about race. Eventually, the town of Jasper evolved into a character in the book, and then it became obvious how the book needed to be structured—a split between what the black community saw and then what the white community saw.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most intriguing moment during your research? Your most terrifying?
DTR: The first time I drove down Huff Creek Road—where the murder occurred—was scary. It was about six in the morning, and I had a bad map and even worse directions from the manager at the hotel. I drove out to FM 1408 and stopped at the convenience store where King, Brewer, and Berry had stopped that night: the place—according to District Attorney Guy James Gray—where they probably decided they would kill him. I drove past Huff Creek Road three times. Back then it wasn’t marked. Finally, I found a woman standing in her yard and stopped and asked her. She lived almost on the corner of the farm-to-market road and Huff Creek Road. About an eighth of a mile down the way there is a bridge over the creek made of railway ties. It said the maximum load it could take was five thousand pounds. I was in a rental car, and I had no idea what it weighed. I remember getting out of the car and taking a long look at it and wondering whether it was more or less than five thousand pounds. I thought it was less. Though, I’ll admit I punched the gas when I drove across the bridge. Almost right away I noticed how rough the road was. Then I started seeing the circles of paint that marked the evidence. It was chilling. I didn’t sleep for days.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most challenging part of this book?
DTR: Trying to tell a story that moved beyond the murder without minimalizing the tragedy was the toughest thing. I needed to provide enough detail of the killing to allow the story of Jasper to unfold without turning off the reader. Most people know everything they want to know about the James Byrd murder. What they don’t know about is how Jasper reacted and what occurred behind the scenes. They don’t know that the black and white communities came together to put their best foot forward largely for media consumption. It was also important, I thought, to make the themes in the book universal enough so they applied to the country in general, not just to a small Texas town. This isn’t just a story about racism in Texas. It is about the state of race relations in the country more generally. Jasper and the Byrd murder have become the vehicles I use to discuss it.
texasmonthly.com: What did you expect to see and what did you find when you arrived in Jasper?
DTR: I didn’t have many expectations when I went down to Jasper. I certainly didn’t expect the town to be so pretty. I also didn’t expect it to be so poor. I’ve seen poverty in the cities, but never the kind of rural poverty I saw in Jasper.
texasmonthly.com: How did you set up and conduct interviews on racism—a topic that is so volatile and in many ways not talked about in the South?
DTR: It doesn’t work that way. You don’t call people and tell them you want to talk about race. Much of what I discovered came from long conversations with people about Jasper. Book writing, particularly this kind of book writing, is about building relationships—not setting up interviews. I spent my time in Jasper doing exactly that, trying to get people to trust me and trying to test my theories on them. There is a type of journalist who just takes information, and then there are reporters who trade information. I was always telling Jasperites what I had learned, and inevitably they would share something else I didn’t know. One of the biggest compliments I have received from people in Jasper about the book is that there are a lot of things in it—history, conversations, familial connections—they didn’t know until they read the book. That’s what I was trying to accomplish. I wanted to paint a complete picture.
texasmonthly.com: In the book, the townspeople talk about the race relations changing while the media was there and then going back to the way things used to be. How will Jasper continue to develop after Byrd’s death? And how do you think this work has affected the tone and culture of the town?
DTR: The message of the book is that prejudice is not something that you can just wish away. Prejudice is something that you must consciously work against day in and day out. That’s what some people in Jasper learned from the Byrd murder. Others, and I think it is the majority of Jasperites and maybe Americans generally, decided that these lessons applied to someone else, or that if they were simply aware of prejudice that was enough. The book is trying to say that simply being aware of prejudice isn’t enough. And that isn’t just a message for Jasper, it is a message for everyone.
texasmonthly.com: How did your views of the perpetrators—Bill King, Shawn Berry, and Russell Brewer—change over the course of your research for A Death in Texas?
DTR: Of course, my first reaction was that they were monsters. In many ways I still feel that. Do I think that the Texas prison system had a lot to do with turning King and Brewer into racists? Absolutely. That said, growing up in Jasper played a role as well. I was trying to find out how much of a role it played. Frankly, just writing off King, Brewer, and Berry as aberrations isn’t helpful to anyone. How does one learn anything from that? So that’s why I tried to dig deeper. There is a scene in the book in which a crowd gathers outside the courthouse to see King, Brewer, and Berry for the first time. The reporters there had anticipated shouted abuse, but instead the people were struck dumb because they didn’t expect the trio to look so normal. The book tries to give the killers more of that human shape. That’s not meant to exonerate them in any way for what they did. Rather, I wanted people to be able to identify somewhat with King, Brewer, and Berry, so they might be able to recognize the warning signs if they saw them again in others. Ultimately, it isn’t the guys in hoods we need to worry about—it is the ones who are simmering beneath the surface who are frightening.
texasmonthly.com: This book focuses a lot on the Texas prison system and what it does to the men in it. Did that thread of the story surprise you? What changes (if any) do you think need to be made?
DTR: Before starting the research for this book, I had never been to a prison or, as far as I knew, talked to a criminal. I don’t know enough about prisons to make any suggestions on how they ought to be changed. I will say that I used to think that the death penalty was a deterrent to crime. I’m not sure I think that anymore.
texasmonthly.com: How did this story affect you as you covered it and then sat down to write it?
DTR: Until recently I was the only reporter who had interviewed King through all of this. That really affected me in a negative way. I did a lot of television appearances during his trial because he spoke to me in the middle of the proceedings. I tried to make the point, not very successfully as it turned out, that he seemed pretty normal, and you’d never guess he’d be capable of this kind of crime. Immediately I was painted as an apologist for King. I was shocked, and it really bothered me. For more than a year, I had a recurring nightmare that King was released under my recognizance and then I lost him in the Wal-Mart in Jasper. Obviously when you are writing about such a difficult case, it plays tricks on your mind. Now that the book is finished, I don’t seem to have that dream anymore.