In June of 1998, three presumed white supremacists from Jasper, Texas severely beat and then murdered James Byrd, Jr. by tying him to a pick-up truck and dragging his body for miles. This incident has made the town infamous and, unfortunately, the racial divide continues to linger. According to a report in The New York Times, the city’s first African-American police chief has been fired by a predominantly white city council, prompting the former chief to take legal action and the NAACP to seek a federal investigation.
Even more shocking are the sentiments expressed by some of the town’s leaders. During a recent recall election that centered on the police chief’s performance, the Times reports, “two white business owners … used a racial slur at a City Council meeting and on Facebook; they later apologized.” One of the businessmen explained the incident by saying, “You get angry at a few people, sometimes you call names, right?”
After Byrd’s murder, a fence that divided white from black graves in the town’s cemetery was taken down as a “sign of unity and reconciliation,” but this appears to be a purely cosmetic change as the cemetery remains segregated. The Times quotes a white member of the cemetery’s board explaining:
“We have the same cemetery, but we don’t mix the white and the black graves. They’re separate. Put a black up here? No, no, we wouldn’t do that. That would be against our custom, against our way of doing things.”
Clearly, reconciliation has yet to really happen in Jasper, which means there’s work for the Holy Spirit to do there. Undoubtedly many of Jasper’s community leaders are also involved in local faith communities. My prayer for Jasper is that in the midst of this latest turmoil, God will act through the town’s pastors and churches. The sin of racism needs to be named and addressed, which hopefully leads to individual and community transformation.
Jasper’s cemetery is segregated. Jasper’s leaders need to realize that heaven won’t be.
Beau Underwood is Campaigns Manager at Sojourners.