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Deeply polarized Texas town broaches long-taboo topic of race

'Every city should have a dialogue like this,' the mayor says. The meeting is part of a mediation program that the Justice Department has offered to troubled towns to help close deep racial fissures.

February 05, 2009|Howard Witt

PARIS, TEXAS — Ten days into a new American era, 100 white and black citizens of this polarized east Texas town tried their hand at the kind of racial reconciliation heralded by the inauguration of President Obama, gathering for a frank community talk on the long-taboo topic of race.

Things didn't go so well.

The black speakers at last week's meeting, led by two conciliation specialists from the Justice Department, mostly talked about incidents of discrimination, prejudice and unfairness they said they routinely suffered in Paris.

Their white listeners mostly glared back, their arms crossed.

The four-hour session ended with some participants screaming about the presence of three police cars outside the meeting hall and who had ordered them and why.

"We are not going to end on a note like that!" said Carmelita Pope-Freeman, the regional director of the Justice Department's community relations service. "I'm getting tired of it!"

Yet the mayor of the town, which became a national focus after the Chicago Tribune revealed several cases of alleged racial injustice in recent years, pronounced himself optimistic.

At least, he said, black and white citizens were talking to each other -- something that rarely happened before.

"Every city should have a dialogue like this," said Mayor Jesse James Freelen, whose town of 26,000 is 68% white and 22% black. "We didn't like all the negative publicity about our town. . . . But if the end result is that our community grows together, then it will all have been worth it."

First, the community had to vent, which was the purpose of the meeting. It was an early stage of a mediation program that the Justice Department has offered to other troubled towns -- in an echo of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission -- to help close deep racial fissures.

"I'm here to talk about racism. I don't see any sense in playing games, pretending it doesn't exist," said Brenda Cherry, the African American leader of a local civil rights group. "When you go in the schools and see mostly black kids sitting in detention, it's racism. In court, we get high bonds, we get longer sentences. If that's not racism, what is it?"

Jason Rogers, the youth pastor of a local black church, reminded the audience of the monument honoring fallen Confederate soldiers that sits on the front lawn of the county courthouse.

"When I take my 5-year-old son up to the courthouse and he says, 'Daddy, what's that?' the history I'm going to tell him is that those people fought to keep me a slave," Rogers said, as black members of the audience nodded in agreement. "It bothers my family that there's a large Confederate soldier outside the courthouse. I don't see the difference between a Confederate soldier and a Nazi soldier."

Paris' bloody racial history hung over the meeting like a toxic cloud. The gathering was held in a hall at the Paris Fairgrounds, the precise spot where, a century ago, thousands of white citizens gathered to cheer the ritualized lynchings of blacks, chaining them to a flagpole or lashing them to a scaffold before tearing them to pieces and setting them on fire.

But memories of more recent black victims also filled the room as Paris resident Jacqueline McClelland approached the microphone.

McClelland's 24-year-old son, Brandon, was killed last year, allegedly by two white men who authorities say dragged him beneath a pickup until his body was nearly dismembered. The accused killers are awaiting trial for murder, although McClelland's family and civil rights leaders want hate crime charges added as well.

"Any crime that is done the way my son was done, I think hate played a part in it," McClelland said as the room fell silent. "I'm just hoping and praying that justice will be served on this."

Then Creola Cotton stood up to speak.

In 2006, Cotton's daughter, Shaquanda, then 14, was sentenced to up to seven years in a youth prison for shoving a hall monitor at Paris High School. Three months earlier, the same judge had sentenced a 14-year-old white girl to probation for arson.

Less than a month after a March 12, 2007, Tribune article contrasting the two cases triggered national protests and petition drives, Texas authorities ordered Shaquanda's early release.

"Justice in Paris does have a color," Creola Cotton said. "I know this from personal experience."

At the back of the room, Lamar County Judge Chuck Superville -- the white man who ordered Shaquanda to prison -- listened and shook his head in disagreement.

Racial discrimination in Paris, he insisted, is a problem of perception, not reality.

"I think the black community in this town is suffering a great deal from poverty, broken homes, drugs," Superville said. "Because a larger percentage of the black population is caught up in that, in their anguish they are perceiving they are the victims of discrimination.

"But white people are not the enemy. Poverty, illiteracy, drugs, absentee fathers -- that's the enemy. That's not racism. That's the breakdown of a community."

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hwitt@tribune.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Mostly white

Whites outnumber blacks by about a 3-to-1 ratio among the estimated 26,000 residents of Paris, Texas.

Paris, Texas demographics:

White: 68%

Black: 22%

Latino: 6%

Other: 4%

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau; ESRI; TeleAtlas

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