As Media Furor Subsides, Jasper Sorts Out Its Future

The blitz of cameras and speeches is over. Now the community must find answers.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The politicians and the special-interest groups are moving on now. The TV crews and the newspaper reporters from around the country are packing up their gear as Jasper, Texas, searches for solace and healing, resisting the efforts of others to make it a symbol or skirmishing ground for America's debate over race relations.

Last week's killing of James Byrd, a black man, allegedly by three white men with ties to racist groups, has been called America's most brutal hate crime since the 1955 lynching of black teenager Emmett Till.

The crime, as well as Mr. Byrd's funeral and other events surrounding it, has drawn armed militants from the New Black Panther Party, prompted efforts by the Ku Klux Klan to march, and brought a crush of politicians and civil rights leaders.

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Jesse Jackson called for "redemption over retaliation" and urged those here to "turn a crucifixion into a resurrection."

No one in the shell-shocked community of 8,000 believes life can simply go on as usual in the wake of the tragedy. But the healing of Jasper is foremost viewed as Jasper's job to do.

Or, as the Rev. Bobby Hudson put it, "People from outside can come in and stir things up, but when the glare of the media is gone, they'll be gone with it. We still have to figure out how to live here." Mr. Hudson is the minister at the First Baptist Church in nearby Pinewood.

Outsiders' influence

Nowhere was the influence of the outside world more acutely expressed than last Thursday at the Greater New Bethel church during the first communitywide prayer vigil for the family.

More than 300 residents wedged into the hall, ablaze with flashbulbs and tangled in electrical wires leading to 12 TV news vans outside. As the Rev. Kenneth Lyons called for a prayer of unity, the hall's public-address system was co-opted by a wireless microphone in the parking lot. For half a minute the prayer was drowned out by a live news report on the district attorney's progress in building a death-penalty case.

The Rev. Mr. Jackson was soon calling for the town to host a national forum as part of President Clinton's race initiative - an offer which was speedily rejected by Hudson (who is black), president of the Jasper County League of Ministers. Jasper's own effort at healing starts in earnest tonight with a community memorial service. Prayers will be offered and hymns sung. But there'll be no speeches, no platform for special interests.

It will be a moment, hopes Mr. Lyons, when people here can "start getting our city back together." Lyons is pastor of the Greater New Bethel Baptist Church and minister for the Byrd family.

Other steps are being taken. Civic, religious, and business leaders here - black and white - have formed their own 25-member ad hoc task force to discuss ways to begin the healing.

Race relations have historically been strong in Jasper, a town with a 45 percent African-American population, where the mayor and two of the five city council members are black.

But the Byrd tragedy points to a responsibility to delve beneath the surface of the issue, said Lyons, who is a member of the city's newly formed task force.

Since the timber industry disappeared three years ago, unemployment has reached 12 percent in Jasper, Lyons said. Whites receive a disproportionate share of the jobs that are left, he adds, leaving primarily low-paying, service industry jobs for African-Americans. "If this task force is going to do anything about race, we need to bring new industry in this town. Our educated black men have no future here."

Compassion in Jasper

But those are longer-range considerations, and for the moment it is individual expressions of concern and compassion that count. The father of one of the alleged attackers publicly expressed remorse for what happened. Many whites have reached out to the Byrd family.

"We are Christian, and this community grieves about this," says David Woodall, who owns a dry cleaner's here. "But we need to work together to move forward. All the attention focuses on the tragedy, but we need to move forward to overcome it."

Still, there is recognition that Jasper's story is - and must continue to be - a national story.

"We know coming here that you've wanted to be left alone," said US Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, who is black. "But we need to be here for ourselves ... because we can ill afford to have what has happened here happen anywhere else across this land."

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