Jewel of the Forest

FINALLY JASPER IS ALONE. THE KLAN AND THE NEW BLACK PANTHERS and the politicians and the media have left town, and the conversation around the long table at Texas Charlie’s restaurant has returned to dry weather and Viagra humor. (“Charlie’s so tight he bought one pill and taped it to the bedpost so he can roll over and lick it.”) But to say that things are back to normal in Jasper would be to miss the point of everything that has happened since the early morning hours of June 7. Three white men have been indicted for giving a black man a ride in a pickup, driving him to a deserted area east of town, beating him senseless, chaining him to the truck by his ankles, and dragging him down a back road until his body began to disintegrate. Evil happened here, the kind of evil that focuses the attention of the entire world on a single town and raises the terrible question of collective guilt.

At first the town that calls itself the Jewel of the Forest seemed fated to share in the responsibility for the gruesome murder of James Byrd, Jr. The accused killers, who are awaiting trial on charges of capital murder, are ex-convicts with ties to white supremacist prison gangs. Jasper fit too easily the Southern backwoods stereotype that is America’s least-loved regional subculture. A town of eight thousand people, around 45 percent of them African American, it is about as deep as Deep East Texas can get—seventy miles closer to Natchez, Mississippi, than to Austin, and just an hour’s drive from Vidor, the capital of Klan country. It is not on the way to anywhere, unless you’re heading north from Beaumont to fish in Sam Rayburn Reservoir or going from Woodville to Bon Wier.

And yet the two hundred or so journalists who swept into Jasper did not find the racially divided town-on-a-powder-keg that they had expected. Instead they found that Jasper has a black mayor, a black

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