The New York Times' front page Monday featured a "beautiful and powerful story" — as one top journalist described it — on the 20th anniversary of James Byrd Jr.'s racially motivated dragging death in the East Texas town of Jasper.
Emotional and compelling, the piece is expertly written and filled with riveting details.
It even contains several references to faith.
So why am I about to give this story — which I mostly liked and really hoped I could praise — a negative critique? The simple answer is that the Times, in an otherwise excellent piece of journalism, fails to answer basic questions tied to religion.
Up high in the story, the newspaper hints strongly at a religion angle when it mentions church and notes that Byrd's family forgave his killers:
JASPER, Tex. — Sometime after church but before dinner, Sgt. James Carter of the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office knocked on the front door of James and Stella Byrd’s home. He stepped into the living room, removed his white cowboy hat and bowed his head. Then, with a somber look on his face that the Byrds still remember years later, he delivered the news that their son James Byrd Jr. was dead.
The horrific circumstances surrounding his death they would learn later: Chained by his ankles to a pickup truck by three men, he had been dragged three miles, murdered before the sun rose that Sunday morning 20 years ago.
“I just knew something was terribly wrong,” Betty Boatner, 63, one of Mr. Byrd’s younger sisters, whispered as she sat on a picnic bench at a memorial park now named in his honor. “It’s such a small town that we had already heard the rumors that a black man was found dead, but we didn’t know who it was. Until the knock on our door.”
The family forgave Mr. Byrd’s three killers long ago and made peace with Jasper, the small East Texas town where they have lived for three generations. But as the nation faces a spread in bias crime incidents, the family wants to ensure the public remembers one of the worst hate crimes of the 20th century. In the years since Mr. Byrd’s death, both state and federal hate crime laws bear his name.
As I kept reading, I expected — or at least hoped — that the Times would elaborate on the family's forgiveness of the killers and the reasoning, which I suspected would include religion, behind it. But that explanation never comes.
Later in the story, faith enters the equation:
Jasper’s faith community — black and white ministers — worked together to ease racial tension. The Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson Jr. arrived. At one point, members of both the Ku Klux Klan and the New Black Panther Party rushed into town for protests. It was a spectacle built upon the fractured fault line of race.
“We thought this place was going to burn,” said the Rev. Ronald Foshage, pastor of St. Michael’s Catholic Church and three other small churches in the community, and a Byrd Foundation board member.
“It was a terrible, terrible time.”
How did the faith community work together to ease tensions? The Times doesn't say.
Keep reading, and there's this reference to faith:
Mr. Foshage and the Byrd family’s pastor at the time, the Rev. Kenneth Lyons, traveled the nation talking about Jasper, hate crimes and the role faith played in reconciliation.
Specifically, what was the role that faith played in reconciliation? The Times doesn't say.
In a story with so much attention to certain details, it's strange that the paper doesn't see a need to elaborate on the role of religion — be it in the family forgiving the killers or faith helping in the reconciliation.
Yes, it's a powerful story. But sadly, it's also haunted by holy ghosts.