JASPER, TEXAS — The roadside marquee at Texas Charlie's restaurant in Jasper, Texas, known hereabouts for its catfish, barbeque, and strawberry cream pie, reads simply: "Lord, we pray for unity."
It's a plea for something - that ineffable sense of community - most people thought defined their small town where blacks and whites vote for each other to lead government, school, and business groups.
But that closeness has been called into shocking question here by a reminder that racial hatred continues to be a national problem.
Jasper County Sheriff Billy Rowles calls this week's lynch-style killing of James Byrd Jr., a black man, "an isolated incident by some guys who are not our kind of people."
Charged with murder are three white men with possible ties to race-hate groups.
For a small Southern town, race relations here are exceptional, agrees Mayor R.C. Horn, who is black. "That's why this is a real sad occasion," he says. "It's not the rule in Jasper."
Yet those who track hate crimes say that while the incident here may be isolated, the apparent thinking behind it is not. Membership in traditional hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan has fallen dramatically - from nearly 13,000 to around 5,000 in the past 20 years. Yet those who espouse (or at least sympathize with) racial hatred may have reached as many as 2 million. Much of this has come through literature sent to prison inmates, racist rock music, and the rapid growth in Internet hate sites.
"In the old days, hate groups would just Xerox a number of fliers and go door to door," says Laurie Wood, spokeswoman for the Intelligence Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. "Now, with the Internet, they can distribute recruiting information to millions of people in just seconds."
This technical ability has helped to spread the white-supremacist movement far beyond its base in the South.
"There is more of an open racism in the South, but I wouldn't say the South is exclusive to a racist way of life," says Chris Freeman, researcher for the Center for Democratic Renewal, an Atlanta-based group that tracks hate crimes. "You have this view of a racist being from Alabama or Georgia with a Confederate flag ... but it's everywhere."
With targeted communities ranging from affluent suburbs to blue-collar trailer parks, the race-hatred movement has split up into thousands of mini-groups, from skinhead gangs to David Duke's more upscale National Association for the Advancement of White People. Some groups openly advocate violence. Others talk about peaceful separation of the races. Such a loose confederation can be difficult to prosecute for crimes, experts say, but not impossible.
Texas Human Rights Commission director Bill Hale brought a civil lawsuit against two east Texas Klan groups for intimidating African-American tenants who had moved into an all-white housing project in the east Texas town of Vidor. The resulting $1.5 million settlement has left the two Klan groups virtually bankrupt.
"That took the wind out of them," says Mr. Hale.
It is still too early in the Jasper murder case to know if the suspects are members of an organized Klan group or some ad hoc white gang formed in prison for mutual protection. But Sheriff Rowles says, "All evidence shows that [the case] will be racially motivated."
Two of the three suspects, John William King and Lawrence Russell Brewer, were cellmates in prison, and their bodies are marked in crude racist tattoos. Jailhouse tattoos are a sign that the two may have joined a prison gang known as the Aryan Brotherhood.
In the past, such groups tended to grow in troubled economic times. But with the economy booming, and unemployment rates at historic lows, hate groups seem to be acting on different anxieties, from millennial angst to anti-immigrant bias.
"Anti-immigrant fervor tends to feed on the people who feel that their jobs are at risk or their lives are threatened," says Gail Gans of the Anti-Defamation League in New York. "Although we are in the 1990s, there are still some attitudes that haven't changed." On a more positive note, she adds, schools are starting to teach tolerance, and blatantly racist groups remain unpopular in the mainstream public.
"When they come to town for a demonstration," says Ms. Gans, "people tend to get together to show them they are not welcome."
"Hate crimes are very personal," says Ms. Wood of the Southern Poverty Law Center. "If a temple is vandalized, every Jew feels affected. If a black person is assaulted, every black person is affected."
Floyd Cochran knows from experience just how personal hate crimes can be. Until 1992, he was a recruiter for the Idaho-based Aryan Nations. But when fellow members told him his son should be killed because of "genetic defects," Mr. Cochran fell away from the group, and became an ardent activist against hate groups.
"Now is the opportunity to put into place school programs that teach people that their fears about other races are unfounded," he says.
In Jasper itself, residents hope that the old days of coexistence between black and white residents can return.
"It's going to be a circus until this thing comes off the front page," says Charlie Nicholson, proprietor of Texas Charlie's restaurant. "Then we'll have to come together. And we'll do a lot of soul-searching."
* James N. Thurman contributed to this report from Washington.