Jasper Revisited: Remembrance And Healing

Story by Jay Williams

The town of Jasper is again finding itself at the center of national attention this week. The reason is all too familiar to the residents who live there.

In June of 1998, James Byrd Jr. was chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged to his death. The brutal hate crime made headlines around the world and thrust Jasper into a spotlight that it did not want.

Three men were arrested and convicted of Byrd's murder. John King and Lawrence Brewer now sit on Texas death row. Shawn Berry is serving life in prison.

On Wednesday night, January 22, the PBS series "Point Of View" aired a documentary that looked at the aftermath of the James Byrd tragedy. It was made by two different film crews, one of them all white, the other all black. On Thursday night, January 23, the ABC News program "Nightline" was  in Jasper for a town hall meeting on race relations in America.

So what has happened to Jasper in those four-and-a-half years since James Byrd's murder? Have the town and its residents been able to move forward? Or do they think the documentary and town hall meeting are simply opening up old wounds?

At first glance, Jasper still looks like many other small towns in East Texas. Many of the people who live there will tell you that it is, despite the murder of James Byrd Jr.

"What happened was a horrible thing that could have happened anywhere," said Jasper resident Mary Sparks. "That's not Jasper. I hope everyone in the country has seen that by the way we reacted."

Not everyone in the country sees it that way. Guy James Gray was the district attorney in Jasper County at the time of Byrd's murder. He successfully prosecuted Byrd's three killers.

"It's easy to convince East Texans that wasn't indicative of Jasper," Gray said. "It's a little tougher to convince people in Dallas and Houston and other parts of our state that wasn't East Texas. When you get north of the Mason/Dixon line... when you get to Washington D.C. and New York and place like that... it's impossible to convince them."

That's why there is so much concern in Jasper about the documentary called "Two Towns Of Jasper." Gray was interviewed by the filmmakers. After seeing the film, he says it's not as bad as he thought it was going to be, but he still does not think it's a fair representation of his hometown.

"I don't think there's any question they came with an agenda," Gray said. "When you have a black film crew and a white film crew, you're obviously trying to get the extreme types of things. Very few of the interviews on this 'Two Towns Of Jasper' would be your common sense, middle-of-the-road, mainstream type people. They're mostly people on the fringes."

Among residents in Jasper, reaction to the idea of the documentary has been mixed.

"It might be a good idea," said Herbert Van Spikes. "Because it didn't tear the town apart like people thought. It drew us together."

"I think it's publicity that doesn't need to be added to this small community," said Dwayne Martin.

"I think Jasper has grown from it," said Mary Sparks. "I think people have taken a look at themselves. I wish we could move on, but I don't think that's going to happen."

Many people in Jasper agree that after four and a half years, it's time to put the Byrd case behind them. Sheriff Billy Rowles is one of them. He declined an interview for this story.

When asked about James Byrd's murder, Sheriff Rowles said, "I think we handled a really bad case... really well. Now it's time to move on."

For many people that process of moving on means continuing the dialogue between black and white residents. They hoped Thursday's town hall meeting on the ABC News program "Nightline" would be a positive step.

"There is hate in some people," said Jasper Mayor R. C. Horn. "We can't change that. We can come together and talk about it."

"I think it's an opportunity to raise the dialogue to another level," said Jasper businessman Meredith Beal. "I think it's promising overall. The things that went unsaid for so long can finally come to the forefront. And we can deal with each other as human beings with respect."

The people of Jasper say what happened to James Byrd Jr. will never and should never be forgotten. Many of them are concerned that the murder is the first or only thing that comes to mind when many people think of Jasper.

They fear that the documentary and a film on Showtime that's due out this summer will only serve to bring up old memories and prevent this town from doing what it's been trying to do for the past four and a half years... to heal.

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