texasmonthly.com: Obviously, this topic is a highly emotional one. How did you approach this story from the beginning? Did you have preconceived ideas before you began working on it?
Pamela Colloff: Initially, I was worried that people in Jasper would not want to be interviewed, simply because they’ve had to deal with hundreds of reporters since James Byrd Jr.’s murder. To my surprise, people were willing to talk and to be brutally honest about their feelings about race relations in their community. I was grateful that people were willing to talk about such a difficult issue with me, and to have their opinions published as well.
texasmonthly.com: How long did you work on this story and what type of research was involved?
PC: There was a lot of material I needed to familiarize myself with before I started reporting, given that I had not covered the Byrd murder or any of the three trials. I read as much about the case and about Jasper as I could find, beginning in June, when I was working on another story. My reporting began in August, when I first went out to Jasper. I spent about three weeks there, talking to as many people as I could.
texasmonthly.com: What kind of reception did you get in Jasper while you were there?
PC: People were very welcoming. For better or worse, they’re used to having reporters poking around town, asking too many questions. So they were very patient and gracious.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think the fact that you are white affected answers and feedback you got from residents?
PC: Absolutely. But to my surprise, I felt that my race affected answers much more with whites than with blacks. (I had anticipated it working the other way around.) I’ll never know what black residents would have told me if I were African American, of course. But black residents were, for the most part, very open with me about their frustrations with whites and with racism. When I interviewed whites, they often talked about “we” and “us”; they assumed that I agreed with their perspective. The white woman who couldn’t fathom why a town park had been named after James Byrd Jr. assumed, by virtue of my skin color, that she had a sympathetic audience. After I put my notebook away, she talked about how the word “nigger” doesn’t really mean anything, and how blacks had “taken advantage” of Byrd’s murder. I doubt that she would have said such things to a black reporter.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most difficult aspect of working on this story? Why?
PC: Aside from thinking about the gruesomeness of the crime, the most difficult aspect of working on this story was thinking about how deep racism really goes, and how far beyond Jasper it extends. Austin—where I live, and which prides itself on being so politically progressive—is really no less divided, in many ways, than Jasper. For the most part, whites live on one side of the interstate, and blacks live on the other.
texasmonthly.com: Did anything surprise you while working on this piece? If so, what?
PC: It was amazing to me how differently two people could view the same place. A typical day of reporting involved a white person telling me that Jasper was the greatest small town in Texas, only to be followed by a black person telling me of some terrible moment in Jasper history that whites had forgotten. That’s why I began the story by talking about the cemetery fence. I wanted to get across the idea of two different realities and memories coexisting with one another. Again, I don’t think this is unique to Jasper.
texasmonthly.com: In your opinion, do you think race relations in Jasper have improved since the Byrd murder?
PC: Yes, I do. As is true anywhere, there’s still a lot of work to be done. But people’s willingness to sit down and talk about race, and really examine their prejudices got people talking and thinking. And in my opinion, that can only be a good thing.