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Looking at tragedy, in black and white

January 22, 2003|Josh Friedman | Times Staff Writer

On a June night in Jasper, Texas, the sheriff came upon what looked at first like the scene of a hit-and-run accident. As the blood trail stretched for two miles and he gathered other evidence along the way -- a T-shirt, a billfold, dentures -- the sheriff's heart was pounding. Long before he found what remained of James Byrd Jr., he realized this was no hit-and-run.

The 1998 murder of Byrd, an African American who was chained to a pickup truck and dragged to his death by three white supremacists, was equally shocking to filmmakers Whitney Dow and Marco Williams, two old friends who previously had never talked much about race.

Dow, who is white, and Williams, who is black, took to the streets of Jasper using separate film crews to get a glimpse of race relations in America during the trials of the defendants. Dow interviewed many of the town's white residents and Williams focused on the black community.

"Two Towns of Jasper," the result of their efforts, airs as a 90-minute "P.O.V." presentation tonight at 9 on KCET and KVCR.

In a cooperative effort of a different sort, "America in Black and White: Jasper, Texas," a 90-minute town meeting hosted by Ted Koppel, will air Thursday on PBS and ABC. KCET will broadcast the full exchange at 9 p.m., and ABC's "Nightline" will air one hour of it at 11:35 p.m.

"Two Towns of Jasper" offers a disturbing montage of different realities that inhabit the same place and time. It also portrays hope in a town looking hard at itself and removing barriers.

Some whites resent the negative attention the case has brought, calling Jasper a harmonious town. A few point out Byrd's personal flaws and bemoan the "political correctness" that prevents them from using the "N" word.

To blacks, the murder is not an anomaly but an extreme expression of the hatred and danger that long have lurked below the surface.

Still, the tragedy stirred whites and blacks to pray together and to remove the cemetery fence that segregated grave sites.

"Jasper is moving toward oneness," the black pastor says. "Jasper is moving toward greatness."

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