The Ku Klux Klan chose Jasper for a rally on Saturday because it was here that James Byrd, a 49-year-old black man, was dragged to his death behind a pick-up truck. The three white men arrested for his murder, it was claimed, had links to white racialist groups. The Klan disavowed his killing, and said they just wanted a chance to put their case in public. Rain might have saved the people of Jasper from an ugly day.
Just after midday the doors of the courthouse opened, disgorging 40 members of the Texas Department of Safety police in riot helmets. Only then did they came out: about 20 members of the Ku Klux Klan, most in white, black or blue robes and hoods. The symbols on the flags they brought with them were testimony to their strange mixture of beliefs: the confederacy, the United States, Texas, a drop of blood and, most sinister of all, the circle cross which mimics the swastika.
They made us listen to some of their music before they spoke. As if to prove that white folks have no soul, it blended banjos and bagpipes in dreadful harmony. The Klan shuffled around in their robes, which looked awfully hot.
Then they spoke, the Imperial Wizards and Grand Dragons from Texas, Louisiana, and elsewhere. "We're here to denounce the murder of James Byrd," said the first speaker. "The fellers that did that, they're definitely not a part of any Klan group," said another. And, of course, they wanted to assert their constitutional right to be here.
"Are you going to stand up for yourself ... and defend yourself?" asked the Klan. They gave a postal address for potential new members. "Make no mistake about it," they said, "Jasper is part of the Invisible Empire. This is Klan country."
There was no trouble, despite the presence of a few dozen black men from the New Black Panthers of Dallas. Jasper has no more of a history of black militancy than it does of white, but the Panthers saw the cameras as the Klan did.
Less than two hours after the Klan took the stage, they were ushered off again. The Texas Rangers held the crowds back and, with only one arrest, it was all over.
Of about 300 people who came to see this show, one-third were from the media. I counted 45 television cameras, about two for every member of the Klan. Of the rest of the crowd, half were black and the rest were mainly passive observers or protestors who had driven in from outside. Only about forty were clearly there to support the Klan, raising Nazi salutes and screaming for White Power as the Klan were whisked off.
Robert had come 40 miles to see the Klan. "I support some of their beliefs, not all of them," he said cautiously as he lolled in the sun. As for the men who murdered James Byrd, well, "they just whupped a boy and they went too far".
The alleged killers will go on trial soon, with the authorities apparently set on charging them with capital murder charges that will allow the death penalty. Perhaps they will be executed, but the hate will continue.
The Klan is probably an unpleasant irrelevance. Everything about their performance seems antique. The Invisible Empire is weaker than it has ever been, as legal cases and the rapidly declining membership take their toll.
But the new battalions of the right, the morass of groups that profess racialism, separatism, and hatred of the state, are growing. This "leaderless resistance", as it calls itself, does not hold rallies dressed in white on hot Texas main streets. It feeds off the same hatreds and beliefs as the Klan, but it has its roots in white rejection of the integration of the 1960s, not the Reconstruction of the 1860s. If the killers of James Byrd had to learn their hatred, it was from these groups, not the Klan.
Jasper is trying to pick up the pieces, and restore some sanity where there is little left. The three weeks since James Byrd's death have brought everyone from basketball player Dennis Rodman of the Chicago Bulls to the Wizards and Dragons through town. Jasper is a small, poor town with ten per cent unemployment trying hard to keep itself afloat when it has little to offer beyond timber and a strip of junk food joints for travellers.
It has its racial conflicts, like anywhere else in America. The death of James Byrd has put these in the spotlight, and made them even harder to deal with. "I love Jasper, but there are some problems here," said Ray Lewis, a black pastor and owner of a timber business.
The young black men and women of Jasper will have drawn their own lessons from the Klan's appearance. They may well remember the words of the New Black Panthers, its leaders sweating in the hot sun, surrounded by cameramen: "We have been in this country for 400 years, and we will defend ourselves with any means necessary." That, for many people in Jasper, may have been the most lasting message of the day.Reuse content