Racial Tensions Flare Anew in Jasper Texas: Fired police chief at center of conflict

The grave of James Byrd Jr., whose grisly killing in 1998 made Jasper notorious.



Published: June 21, 2012


JASPER, Tex. — For more than 100 years, a rickety iron fence separated the black graves from the white ones at a cemetery in this East Texas town. Months after the brutal murder here of James Byrd Jr., a black man chained to a pickup truck and dragged to death by three white men on June 7, 1998, the fence was torn down by residents as a sign of unity and reconciliation.

Fourteen years later, Jasper City Cemetery remains segregated: blacks, including Mr. Byrd, are buried near the bottom of the hill, while whites are buried at the top.

“It’s our custom, here in the South, here in Jasper,” said Albert K. Snell, 80, a retired teacher who is white and a member of the cemetery’s board of directors. “We have the same cemetery, but we don’t mix the white and the black graves. They’re separate. Put a black up here? No, no, we wouldn’t do that. That would be against our custom, against our way of doing things.”

In recent months, the perpetual, uncomfortable truce between the races in this piney woods town of 7,600 has ruptured, and the feuding has become increasingly public.

At the center of the controversy this time is not a vicious crime, but a bitterly fought political feud over the hiring and firing of Jasper’s first black police chief, Rodney Pearson. Mr. Pearson says he is preparing to sue. The Texas N.A.A.C.P. has asked the federal government to investigate. And former and current white officers who worked under Mr. Pearson have filed federal complaints of their own alleging racial discrimination.

The battle dates from last year, when the majority-black, five-member City Council voted to appoint Mr. Pearson, first as the interim and then the permanent chief.

Mr. Pearson had been a longtime state trooper in the area and was a former Jasper volunteer fire chief. But Mr. Pearson’s selection was opposed by a number of white residents, who believed the council passed over more qualified candidates, including Gerald Hall, a white police captain at the time and a veteran of the department.

A group calling itself the League of Concerned Citizens circulated petitions to recall three of the four black council members who voted to hire Mr. Pearson, accusing them of “incompetence, misconduct and malfeasance in office.” Hundreds of people signed the petitions, and it appeared that all of them were white, according to a ruling in a lawsuit filed in connection with the recall effort.

Two of the council members were recalled in November. When the new City Council was elected in May, it became a 4-to-1 white majority. This month, one of the council’s first acts was to vote, 4 to 1, to fire Mr. Pearson at a public meeting after council members and Mayor Mike Lout, who is white, questioned him about his handling of the department. Alton Scott, the black councilman, opposed the move.

“The whole thing is racist,” Mr. Scott said of Mr. Pearson’s firing. “It’s based on race. It has nothing to do with qualifications.”

Mr. Lout, who in May retained his seat after surviving a recall election, did not respond to requests for comment.

White residents opposed to Mr. Pearson said their concerns had never been about race, but about his failure in his employment application to disclose bad checks he had written, including one that led to a 1990 misdemeanor arrest. They said Mr. Pearson and his supporters had unfairly labeled criticism of him as racist, and that Jasper — 45 percent white and 44 percent black, according to the 2010 census — had had a long history of black leadership, including R. C. Horn, the mayor at the time of Mr. Byrd’s murder.

Three white council members — Mitch McMillon, Randy Sayers and Raymond Hopson — said their votes to fire Mr. Pearson stemmed from what they saw as his lackluster performance as police chief, and that firing him had nothing to do with race, though Mr. McMillon said he believed the decision to hire him did.

“The chief of police needs to be someone of impeccable character, to demand the respect of his employees and officers and really the town,” said Mr. McMillon, who runs a senior center in town and who won a seat vacated by a recalled black council member. “Mr. Pearson didn’t have that. The decision to hire Rodney was based solely on the color of his skin. That was a racially motivated decision. And I think our town reacted appropriately. They were recalled as a result of that.”

In one way, the dispute over Mr. Pearson’s hiring was a small-town political power struggle. Mayor Lout wanted Mr. Hall, the police captain, to be named police chief, but the majority-black council rejected the mayor’s recommendation and selected Mr. Pearson. When Mr. Pearson became chief, he demoted Mr. Hall to sergeant and brought in a new captain, angering the mayor.

Rodney Pearson and his wife, Sandy. His hiring and firing divided Jasper.

But racial animosity often came to the surface. Two white business owners who supported the recall effort used a racial slur at a City Council meeting and on Facebook; they later apologized.

Three weeks before Mr. Pearson was fired, his wife, Sandy, was fired from her job as an officemanager. Mrs. Pearson, who is white and who did not work for the city, said she believed her firing was due in part to the controversy over her husband.

Throughout the disputes, Mr. Byrd’s death and Jasper’s struggle to heal from it have been in the background. In June 1998, Mr. Pearson, then a state trooper, was the first law enforcement officer at the scene of Mr. Byrd’s killing and found his body. Mr. Hopson, one of the new council members, was related by marriage to Shawn A. Berry, one of the three men convicted of murdering Mr. Byrd.

Lance Caraway, a white gun-shop owner who gathered signatures for the recall effort against the black council members, is one of the local businessmen who used a racial slur last year. “You get angry at a few people, sometimes you call names, right?” Mr. Caraway said. “It was a poor choice of words.”

Gary L. Bledsoe, president of the Texas N.A.A.C.P., has asked the United States Department of Justice to monitor race relations in Jasper and is preparing to request that authorities in Washington withhold federal financing to Jasper because of what he called racial discrimination in the firing of Mr. Pearson. “Clearly he’s been the victim of a lynch-mob mentality in the area,” Mr. Bledsoe said of Mr. Pearson.

Mr. Bledsoe and black leaders in Jasper said the segregated cemetery was one example of the ways in which many here perpetuate a hostile racial attitude. Several black residents, including one of Mr. Byrd’s relatives, said they feared speaking out against bias in Jasper and in support of Mr. Pearson out of fear of retaliation. A longtime board member of the cemetery, which is not city-owned, said a black family could not bury a loved one in the white section because all of the plots were taken, and the plots had been bought along racial lines.

Mr. Pearson said that throughout his tenure as police chief, he was treated differently because of his race. He said he was cut out of the city budgeting process and was never given the honor of a swearing-in ceremony. He said city officials used a scoring system from the Texas Police Chiefs Association to rank the candidates for the position — a system that he and his lawyer, Cade Bernsen, said had never been used in the past and that was meant to give credence to the claim that he was underqualified.

While still police chief in April, Mr. Pearson filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the city, alleging racial discrimination. “A nightmare,” Mr. Pearson said of his time as police chief. “I feel that I ran the department as best as I could with the support that I had.”

Mr. Hopson, a retired state trooper, said his family ties to Mr. Berry had no bearing on his decision to fire Mr. Pearson. “There’s not a blood relationship nor a legal relationship between Shawn Berry and I,” he said. “He was part of our family when his mother was married to my brother. I personally knew Rodney for many years and I liked him. It’s strictly based on performance. It had nothing to do with race.”

At the cemetery, one fence, the one separating the white and black graves, came down in January 1999, but a different one went up years later. A cast-iron fence surrounds Mr. Byrd’s grave. In 2004, two white teenagers desecrated the grave with racial slurs and knocked over the headstone.


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