Jasper, Texas: 10 Years After a Racist Murder

Ten years have passed since the horrific murder of James Byrd by three white men in Jasper, Texas. Michele Norris talks to Jasper ministers Father Ronald Foshage of St. Michael's Catholic Church and Pastor Kenneth Lyons of Greater New Bethel Baptist Church. They reflect on the healing process that took place between blacks and whites in the town and race relations in Jasper today.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

And I'm Michele Norris.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Ten years ago this month, the small town of Jasper, Texas was thrust into the national spotlight when a 49-year-old black man was dragged to death along a stretch of country road. In the early morning of June 7th, three white men used a logging chain to tie James Byrd, Jr.'s ankles to the rear bumper of a pickup truck.

Byrd's remains were strewn throughout the stretch of Huff Creek Road, found in 75 different places, his keys in one place, his dentures in another, his head and his right arm discovered a mile from his torso. The crime shocked the nation and jolted the town of Jasper. Tensions rose, but for the most part they did not boil over, and one reason is the town's clergy members. They rushed into action, urging calm, encouraging dialogue, and keeping angry protest to a minimum.

Father Ronald Foshage of Saint Michael's Catholic Church and Pastor Kenneth Lyons of Greater New Bethel Baptist Church are two clergymen from Jasper and they join us now to talk about the healing process in the town of Jasper. Welcome to both of you.

Father RONALD FOSHAGE (Saint Michael Catholic Church): It's nice to be here, thank you.

Pastor KENNETH LYONS (Greater New Bethel Baptist Church): Good to be here. Thank you.

NORRIS: Now, Pastor Lyons, when you first heard about this murder, what were you most worried about in the town of Jasper?

Pastor LYONS: My greatest worry was how widespread is this. That was my greatest worry. Then my next worry was will this divide us, and my thinking was we don't want to be divided and began the healing immediately; not much later, but immediately. Both white and black agreed that this could not be just a black problem, and so we focused on it being a Jasper problem rather than a black problem or a white problem.

NORRIS: Now, Father Foshage, you had a series of conversations with black ministers as well, and I understand that you asked them what do you need at this moment from the white community. Tell about those first conversations, just - you know, that moment where people were just learning about this. What were those conversations are?

Father FOSHAGE: Well, we asked Brother Kenneth what did he need from us as ministers and from our churches. And I remember very clearly, he said please invite your people to be at the funeral service, fully knowing that we could not all enter into the church, but to see a large number of people out on the parking lot would say volumes to the Byrd family. And all of us asked our people to not only pray but to come and show their support, and they certainly did.

NORRIS: How did you get people to talk about it? Did you have to provide a sort of safe place where they could come together and talk about this?

Father FOSHAGE: Ma'am, shortly after it happened, our mayor, he asked the city council people to set up an open town hall meeting in each district of the city. People were allowed to say anything they wanted about how they felt about the community and what needed to be done. And I think that helped the healing process.

NORRIS: What kinds of things that people say?

Father FOSHAGE: Well, I remember one lady got up, and with tears in her eyes she said she used to use the N-word in her house all the time. And her daughter came home and said, Mom, don't use that word again in our presence; it's very offensive. And that lady said that when her daughter asked her to stop using that word, it meant more to her than if, if the chief of police or the sheriff or her minister had asked her, and she said from that moment on she never used that word again.

NORRIS: What was the most difficult period - the immediate aftermath or that period when those three men were on trial and the national spotlight was once again on the town of Jasper?

Father FOSHAGE: I think for both of us probably one of the most difficult days was when the KKK and the Black Panthers came to our community, because we were so concerned that our town could end up being burnt to the ground.

Pastor LYONS: I think that was the key to the whole situation, when the blacks did not side with the Panthers and the whites did not side with the KKK. That's what brought us through this situation, when we stood together against the blacks and all of us stood together against the KKK, and that was amazing. And after they saw that we were not going to be divided, they soon left town.

NORRIS: Do people talk about this much today?

Father FOSHAGE: Yes, especially because we just celebrated last Saturday the 10th anniversary and we had a service in the James Byrd Park to honor the Byrd family for the forgiveness that they constantly preached. The very first words out of James Byrd, Sr.'s mouth the day he met with us is, My family is hurting, we are not hating.

NORRIS: Have you had any connection with either the friends or the family members of the three men who were convicted of this hate crime? How was they doing? And how did they get through this process?

Father FOSHAGE: Bill King's father is a member of our church.

NORRIS: He lives in Jasper?

Father FOSHAGE: Yes, he does.

NORRIS: How is he treated in the town?

Father FOSHAGE: I think with kindness and fairness. He met with the Byrd family, and you know, during the trial we sat in front pew of the courtroom; the Byrd family sat on one side and Ronald and I sat on the other. And every time they went past us, members of the Byrd family would talk to Ronald. And there's no animosity or hatred between them. They hated what his son did, but they don't hate him.

NORRIS: How do you deal with these kinds of milestones though? Because it seems like this is tough, when you reach that 10-year milestone, 15-year milestone, 20-year milestone. Some people need to memorialize James Byrd, need to make sure that people never forget what happened. And there are other people who need to moved on. How do you balance those two things?

Father FOSHAGE: Well, many people in the white community kept telling us, when we talked about this 10-year anniversary, let it go. But I don't think as a community we can ever forget it. And I don't think it's ever past us.

NORRIS: Pastor Lyons?

Pastor LYONS: I think they did showed the awfulness of hate, and I think by his legacy it will let people know exactly what hate will do.

NORRIS: Pastor Lyons, Father Foshage, thank you very much for your time. All the best to both of you.

Father FOSHAGE: Thank you very much. It was a joy.

NORRIS: Father Ronald Foshage is with St. Michael's Catholic Church, and Pastor Kenneth Lyons is with Greater New Bethel Baptist Church. Both of them are from Jasper, Texas.

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