On a June morning in 1998, Rodney Pearson, the first black highway patrolman in Jasper, Texas, got a call. He walked along a mile and half of drag marks, skin and blood, and found the spot in the woods where three white supremacists had wrapped a logging chain around James Byrd Jr.'s ankles, hooked it to a pickup truck and dragged the 49-year-old black man to death along an asphalt road.
Thirteen years later, Jasper's city council named Pearson (pictured at left) as its first black police chief. The town has changed a lot since Byrd's murder, and Pearson's election could have symbolized the Texas town finally overcoming its ugly past. But instead it's ripped the city apart, right down the color line.
"East Texas is really a part of the country that the civil rights movement missed," said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, referring to racial tensions there. He notes that in a triumphant moment in 1999, the city tore down the cast iron fence that had long separated the black and white parts of the cemetery. "But you can't cure 200 years of terrible race relations, with one symbolic act."
In just over a year since Pearson's selection, the city council has flipped from four-fifths black to four-fifths white; a group of white residents managed to organize the first recall election Jasper has ever seen; and despite evidence of forgery on recall petitions, the city managed to kick out the council members who gave Pearson the job.
"This time, the black council had the audacity to make their own independent choice for police chief," said Pearson's lawyer, Cade Bernsen. "And you see what happens. They got 'em." Read more...