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New battle opens Texas town's racial scars

Fourteen years after a notorious hate crime, Jasper finds itself embroiled in a political fight that pits blacks against whites. Everyone had hoped the community had moved beyond this.

July 09, 2012|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times
  • Rodney Pearson, with his wife, Sandy, was removed as police chief in Jasper, Texas, after a racially charged political battle.
Rodney Pearson, with his wife, Sandy, was removed as police chief in Jasper,… (Molly Hennessy-Fiske,…)

Reporting from Jasper, Texas — On June 11, just before the City Council fired this town's first African American police chief, the Rev. John D. Hardin addressed the packed council chambers, blacks sitting on one side, whites on the other.

Hardin, the 82-year-old pastor of the black Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church, paraphrased lyrics from an old song by Texas country legends Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, "Just to Satisfy You":

Somebody's gonna get hurt before we're through,

And don't be surprised

If that somebody is you.

It wasn't so much a warning as a plea for this East Texas logging town to avoid racial conflict.

But a battle was already underway, especially between two men: the police chief standing in the back and the white mayor sitting up front, preparing to oust him.

Both felt they were acting against racism. Both took the struggle personally. Fourteen years earlier, both had witnessed the aftermath of a hate crime that would long define their town. And both had hoped Jasper had moved beyond that awful time.

***

In the wee hours of June 7, 1998, three white men in a pickup traveling a road at the edge of town offered a ride to a black man headed home on foot.

Later that morning, the mangled remains of James Byrd Jr., 49, were found strewn along a 1 1/2-mile stretch of blacktop.

When Rodney Pearson, then a 32-year-old state trooper, first heard a report of body parts on Huff Creek Road, he figured somebody must have dug up a grave. Pearson recalls walking the road with Jasper County's sheriff, following a trail of blood to a discarded tool etched with the name of a local man, Shawn Berry.

Pearson, the first black highway patrolman in Jasper, got a cold, cold feeling.

A local reporter was also on the scene that day. Mike Lout, then 42, covered the story for KJAS, the radio station he ran out of his house. He was the first to report that Byrd had been alive when he was chained to the truck and dragged, and that the killing was racially motivated.

"That set the world on fire," Lout said.

Reporters flocked to the town of 8,000, followed by the KKK and the Black Panthers.

It didn't seem to matter that Jasperites, even James Byrd's mother, Stella "Mama" Byrd, insisted their town was a loving, peaceful place. It didn't seem to matter when the town buried Byrd and tore down the cemetery wall that had separated black and white graves.

Jasper, which bills itself as "the jewel of the forest," became fixed in the collective imagination as a bastion of racism.

In time, Berry, Lawrence Brewer and John King were convicted of Byrd's murder. Brewer was executed, King sent to death row and Berry sentenced to life.

In 2009, Lout, an affable guy who favors Hawaiian shirts, was elected mayor. That same year Pearson, who has the clean-cut good lucks of a politician, became the first black chief of the town's volunteer fire department. He had retired as a trooper three years earlier.

When the chief of the 26-member police department announced he was leaving last year, Pearson asked Lout for his support. With 21 years of experience as a trooper, Pearson considered himself qualified. Lout did not, favoring the department's second-in-command, a captain who is white.

"All we can do is choose people based on their qualifications," Lout said.

The mayor proposed that the city evaluate more than 20 candidates using standards developed by the Texas Police Chiefs Assn., including education and experience. Pearson scored below some others, in part because he didn't have a bachelor's degree. But neither did some past chiefs. Nor does the mayor.

In a town that is about 46% white, 44% black, the selection process soon took on racial overtones.

On April 21, 2011, the five-member City Council appointed Pearson chief over Lout's objections — four black members in favor, one white against. (Lout did not vote — under city rules, the mayor can only vote to break a tie.)

Lance Caraway, a local gun shop owner, hopped on the KJAS Facebook page and hurled the N-word at Pearson's supporters.

Efforts began to oust Pearson and the council members who backed him.

The wife of the police captain passed over for chief posted something on the KJAS Facebook page too:

"I think there is about to be a stink here in Jasper bigger than the Byrd ordeal."

***

A recall, the first since Jasper incorporated in 1926, targeted three council members who voted for Pearson (the fourth retired before the election).

Recall organizers, including Caraway, claimed support from African Americans as well as whites, although it appeared that most people signing their petitions were white.

"Some blacks may have been reluctant to sign the petitions because they didn't want their names exposed," said Vickie Stewart, a recall organizer.

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