Two Years Later, Jasper Builds a Legacy of Racial Harmony – Part 2


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.

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.


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