BEFORE JASPER BECAME A SYMBOL, when it was still an ordinary town, a wrought-iron fence stood in its cemetery, dividing the graves of blacks and whites. How residents viewed the fence depended on which side of it they would someday be buried on. “It was just a rickety old fence that was supposed to keep out chickens and hogs when this was open land,” said realtor John Matthews, whose grandfather was the mayor of Jasper in the twenties. “It’s common knowledge that it wasn’t put there to keep out black people.” But where whites saw a benign relic, blacks saw something else. Chickens and hogs hadn’t had the run of Jasper for a long time, and still the fence remained. Coils of baling wire held up its rusted bars and prevented its sagging rail from giving way. In one place, its wobbly posts were held together with a coat hanger—anything to keep the fence from falling down.
Not until three white men chained James Byrd Jr. to a pickup truck in 1998 and dragged him to his death in the woods outside town did people start to wonder aloud why there was an immutable order to things in Jasper; why blacks were laid to rest only on one side of the fence, on the slope of a hilltop reserved for whites. “The incident,” or “the tragedy,” as locals gingerly call Byrd’s murder, forced this town to undertake the sort of painful introspection that few communities ever experience. Over the past five years, its residents—both black and white—have attended prayer vigils and town meetings and church services together, and they have had candid conversations with one another about race. They have worked hard to show that they renounce the ugly legacy of what happened here. Still, the stain lingers. When they travel beyond the Piney Woods, they know better than to tell strangers where they live. “East Texas,” they offer, and if pressed further, “Near the Louisiana state line.” More than one resident made a point of telling me, with equal parts self-defensiveness and civic pride, “Jasper isn’t the evil town everyone thinks we are.”
For outsiders, Jasper serves as a convenient scapegoat, sparing us the trouble of examining our own prejudices. But this town of 8,247 people is fundamentally no different from any other city or town in America, where the bigotry of a cemetery fence could be interchanged for the racial divide of an avenue or a railroad line. Only Jasper has had to bear the burden of publicly accounting for its sins. If there is hope to be had for racial healing anywhere, it is in the social experiment that has taken place here, where blacks and whites have tried to overcome history and forge a new path.
Seven months after Byrd was murdered, in one of Jasper’s many acts of contrition, the fence that had stood in the town cemetery since 1836 was torn down. Among the clergy and residents who gathered there that day, there was singing and prayers and promises of change. But five years later, even though the old fence has been dismantled, pieces of it remain. Here and there, rods jut out of the ground at odd angles; they protrude from tree trunks and lean against ruined stumps. In some places, wrought-iron bars still stand moored to the ground, impossible to unearth without cutting the trees down. The fence has become tangled in the roots of