If prayers can absolve a community of murder, it will happen here.
Jasper observes a grim anniversary this week. On June 7, it will be two years since three white men abducted a 49-year-old black man, chained his ankles to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him to his death along 3 miles of logging road, rending his body and clothing into 74 pieces. Two of the men were Jasper residents, and so was their victim, James Byrd Jr.
It was a crime so horrific, so brutal that Americans were left to ask themselves how it ever could have been conceived, and no one asked this question more persistently than the residents of Jasper. The crime is a legacy that this tiny city can never erase — nor wants to.
Instead of allowing it to hang like a shroud of shame over Jasper, community and church leaders are using the event to try to remedy a history of racial wrongs that might have subtly encouraged Byrd’s killers, two of whom are now on death row. A third is serving a life sentence.
Racism and separatism, though subtle, have helped to define the culture of Jasper, despite the fact that blacks have assumed key roles in the community. The mayor is black, as is a former school board president, a top hospital administrator and the executive director of a regional government agency.
The brutality of Byrd’s murder forced the community to confront its subtle racism head on, even as the international news media and the Ku Klux Klan descended upon it. Fear that outside agitators would exploit the tragedy and inspire retribution in a community that is 50 percent black awakened in both blacks and whites the realization that racial barriers must come down.
Fittingly, one of the first racial barriers to fall was the wrought-iron fence that divided the local cemetery where Byrd is buried. The fence, which symbolically ensured that blacks kept their place, even into eternity, was torn down last year. Today, a 4-foot section leans as a memorial of sorts against a trash heap near the caretaker’s shed.
Removal of the fence was urged by the mayor’s task force, which in two years has mobilized hundreds of citizens and more than a dozen committees, targeting racism in education, employment, housing, economic development and spirituality.
Among the task force’s accomplishments is construction of a $2 million job training and education center slated to open next spring. The James Byrd Jr. Memorial Park was dedicated last year in a multiracial neighborhood on the east side of town. A 120-acre industrial park near the airport’s new 5,500-foot runway will begin offering tax abatements and other incentives to lure new employers. School officials are now receiving training to spot and take action against racism among students. A bronze sculpture featuring children of all races is planned for the city’s square.
But the work of the spiritual committee best reveals the depths to which Jasper, a community of 7,160 people, is trying to absolve itself of passive complicity in the murder.
The committee is taking action to thwart residents’ habit of referring to skin color when talking about others. The tolerance level for the “n” word is getting close to zero.
A member of the committee has started a multicultural church to help desegregate Sundays, traditionally the most segregated day of the week. The first service, June 4, will be held in the sanctuary of Grace Academy, a nondenominational Christian school.
In the beginning, all the spiritual committee did was pray, an extension of the prayer vigils begun by the local clergy and people of faith as soon as word of the murder spread.
Locals said the healing began with those prayers, which still go on, for this is a praying community, a city of 53 churches — one for every 135 men, women and children. All the churches are Christian and many are Baptist — traditional to this part of East Texas, an oppressively humid region known as the Piney Woods that is dense with towering timbers, impenetrable thickets and fertile lakes that some say make for the best bass fishing in the world.
“Prayer vigils were important in the beginning because nobody wanted to hear speeches,” said the Rev. Walter Diggles, a Jasper resident, executive director of the Deep East Texas Council of Governments and, for the last 20 years, pastor of Lighthouse Church of God and Christ in nearby Kirbyville.
Nothing else could ease the pain of what had happened.
After the crime, some blacks had hate in their hearts, and whites feared the worst, but prayer prevailed, said the Rev. Kenneth Lyons, president of the city’s Ministerial Alliance and pastor of Greater New Bethel Baptist Church, where James Byrd’s mother and other relatives are members.
“But for the Christian education here, on June 7, 1998, Jasper would have been up in flames,” Lyons told the Bethel congregation last Sunday. That was the only mention of the murder after a sermon urging his flock to leave all problems in God’s hands.
The Ministerial Alliance had been meeting weekly for the last 15 years, and that long history proved critical in efforts to head off trouble, Lyons said.
“When Byrd was killed, we forgot all that black and white stuff and came together and spoke with one voice. The white brothers stood with the black brothers for what is right and gained the respect of the black people in this community,” Lyons said of the white ministers. “The KKK and Black Panthers couldn’t understand it because we were speaking with one voice.”
The community also got help in healing racial wounds from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service, a mediation agency that specializes in preventing the violence that often follows highly publicized hate crimes. The unit’s 48 staffers offer assistance on an annual basis to upward of 600 communities embroiled in race-related conflicts.
In Jasper, a mediator from the Houston office spent six to nine months helping residents become expert in countering outside agitators with solutions-oriented interracial events, prayer vigils and task force meetings, said Jonathan Chace, associate director of the Community Relations Service office in Washington, D.C.
“We made a substantial investment in Jasper, probably above and beyond what we commit in other situations,” said Chace.
Indeed, the community has come so far in race relations that last September the Justice Department honored Jasper officials in Washington for their achievements. Jasper’s activities may even be used as a prototype for communities facing similar strife.
The mediator helped the community through frightening times, such as when “the Black Panthers wore camouflage, and carried huge guns,” recalled former city councilor Nancy Nicholson. “But the black ministers have a saying — ‘We don’t want any mess’ — and the people listened.”
In turn, Jasper’s white-owned businesses closed during Ku Klux Klan demonstrations. “Only 17 people and 150 media went to see the KKK,” she said.
Still praying, still working
While the Panthers and the media are long gone, James Roesch, a skinny 19-year-old imperial wizard of the KKK from Ohio, has moved to Jasper, and locals are worried that he wants to make trouble.
Much to the embarrassment of whites, he has shown up at school board and local Democratic committee meetings dressed in Klan attire.
“In general, the whole community would be happy if he moved away from here,” said Pamela Sterling, a desk clerk at the Holiday Inn where Roesch gives media interviews about the Klan. “Surely he is only going to be able to reach the ignorant and illiterate: No one else would listen.”
He isn’t popular with his in-laws either. “If he got away from the Klan, I’d have more to do with him,” said Hubert Letney, whose daughter married Roesch in a Klan ceremony last year. Letney now worries that his daughter and her 3-month-old baby will be hurt due to Roesch’s activities.
“I was fired for my views,” said Roesch who lost his job as a machine operator at a lumber company three months ago. Unable to get work, he now augments his wife’s waitress earnings by sewing Klan robes and golfer Payne Stewart-style knickers for “my own small apparel business.”
He declined to have his photograph taken, citing the publicity that got him fired — a magazine photographed him standing beside James Byrd’s grave.
Roesch won’t say how many Klan members are in Jasper. “Our organization is going underground and keeping a low profile,” he said.
Roesch is disliked only because he embodies the discomforting knowledge that racism still exists, “but we all know that most racism isn’t done by men in sheets,” said Diggles of the Deep East Texas Council of Governments. As founder of the new multicultural church, Diggles believes the services will further heal race relations.
Lyons of the Ministerial Alliance agreed but added, “Our prayers are for unity, but we’ve always got to keep our eyes and ears open.”
And James Byrd Jr. is not forgotten. His resting place continues to draw those seeking racial harmony. A letter left on his grave recently by a Colorado woman promised that he hadn’t died in vain.
“Being here has renewed my commitment to always teach tolerance, understanding, harmony and peace,” she wrote.