Texas braces for Klan invasion
Saturday 27 June 1998
It is the grisly death of a black man in a racially-inspired killing that has brought Jasper such pain. The murder hurt a small community that had never thought of itself as the spawning ground for such evil. But then the Klan decided to show its face to disavow the killing and make its mark on a place that had little time for it. It planned a march for today.
The Panthers, who have little to do with the original black power group, decided they would respond in kind and have threatened to come armed. Shops closed early last night as local officials prepared for a day that risks spilling over into something desperately ugly.
This dreadful pageant began when the dismembered body of James Byrd was found on 7 June, scattered along a mile of country road. He had hitched a ride from three white men but picked the wrong people. They beat him up, tied him with a chain to their pick-up truck and dragged him along until he was dead. Shawn Berry, one of those arrested, told police that Lawrence Brewer and John King had been drunk and had gone berserk.
Jasper is far from the big cities of Texas in the eastern most part of the state. It lies in an area of woods and lakes that has little to do with the sprawling cattle and oil regions to the west. Eastern Texas was a slave-holding area before the Civil War and has more than its fair share of racist groups and dark secrets today.
Nearly half of Jasper's population is black, as is the mayor. The town, accordingly to those who live here, has little recent history of racial confrontation.
This quiet town of 7,000 people plainly feels that it wants no more attention. The local radio station is advising everyone to stay away from the rally, and the square in front of the pretty courthouse is roped off, to keep the media away.
Jasper feels that it has been made the scapegoat for much wider problems that are not its own, and it is afraid.
For the Klan, this is a great opportunity. Members of up to seven different organisation will assemble in town today, including the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Camellia, an Eastern Texas group. They argue that they had nothing to do with the murder and that it serves them little good.
Mark Potok, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, is not normally well disposed towards the Klan, but he agrees.
"I don't think there is any evidence of the involvement of racialist organisations [in the murder]," he said. But with Klan membership falling and more radical groups emerging, "the Klan has taken advantage of the situation."
The involvement of racist movements in the killing is the most controversial aspect of the case. Some argue that, brutal though the murder may have been, it was an isolated incident. "Don't go reading far more into this than these guys deserve," Time Magazine quoted a local attorney, Rife Kimler, as saying. "These are three guys who got mean, got drunk and saw an easy target."
But Time neglected to point out that Mr Kimler has acted as the lawyer for Charles Lee, the Grand Dragon of the White Camellia Knights.
What is not contested is that Brewer, King and Berry, had plenty of time to absorb the ideas and emotions of the white supremacist right.
All three had served time and it was in prison that they seem to have acquired links to right-wing groups. King is thought to have contacts with the Aryan Brotherhood, the largest white prison gang.
He had also adopted Odinism as his religion, a sect that worships Nordic gods and has a following among neo-Nazi skinheads.
If this killing, vile as it was, had just been an act of drunken savagery it was bad enough for Jasper. But it has brought the television cameras and the Klan and everybody else to a small place that is still grieving.
It is hard to feel that anything good can come from this, however hard and honestly the people of Jasper work to heal the wounds left by a murder.
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