A Town to Watch

Terrible events can sometimes lead to progress, if people are ready to learn and change. A case in point is the Texas town of Jasper, population 8,500.

Jasper, most readers will recall, was the site in June of a grisly, racially motivated murder of a black man, James Byrd Jr. Three white men now face first-degree murder charges.

But the formal workings of the criminal-justice system are only a small part of what has transpired in the town since the killing. The community, roughly half white, half black, has organized itself into an intense, understandably more clearly focused version of the racial dialogue sought by President Clinton and others at the national level.

Many residents of Jasper had felt their town was relatively enlightened. The mayor is black; African-American officials had been elected for years. But the Byrd murder was too ugly a sign of racial hatred to be written off as an aberration. The town has been taking a hard look at itself, and from reports such as a recent front-page article in The Wall Street Journal, it appears many residents are genuinely searching their hearts.

People are meeting, talking, and often realizing that racial prejudice can take subtle, but no less stinging, forms.

Some white townspeople have gained a better understanding of the slights regularly suffered by blacks. People are asking themselves why the stands at high school football games separate into black sections and white sections. Clergymen are leading discussions; the police chief is trying to build better communication with black citizens; schoolchildren are being brought into the dialogue.

This isn't an easy, or blithely idealistic, undertaking. Extremists like the Ku Klux Klan have tried to exploit racial fears. And such fears do continue to exist.

But Jasper is fighting a good fight on the side of community wholeness. People there have been forced to seek a deeper basis for living together in peace. Their example bears watching and support.

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