Two black men are killed for their colour. But in US justice was done

Andrew Marshall
Saturday 27 February 1999 00:02

JASPER IS not Eltham, and racism in the United States is a beast born out of a different womb than racism in Britain.

But the sentencing to death in Texas this week of John William King for the murder of James Byrd, and the release of the report into Stephen Lawrence's murder in a south-east London street have focused minds on either side of the Atlantic on the racial poison that still lurks below the surface in each society.

The one common factor in the murders is that Byrd and Lawrence were killed for the same, single reason. Both were black. Eltham's attempts to heal the wounds of the past six years are hopefully - albeit falteringly - now beginning. Jasper, too, is having to deal with the infamy that a ghastly murder has visited on it.

Ray Parton did a good thing. He put on his gloves one day in January, went out and tore down a barrier that separated the black and white community in the town where he lives. It was a good deed, but doubtless Ray would have got a lot less attention than he did - front page news in the Houston Morning News, a few seconds on network television - if things had not been as they were.

The barrier he was removing was in the cemetery, between the graves of town residents who remained segregated even in death

We are sitting in June Bug's Club and Grill, one of the few drinking holes in a town that is dry, where there are more churches than fast food stores (and there are a dozen of so of them) for 8,000 people.

With the Eagles playing in the background, the squeals and roars of a pool game in full session in the next room and shotguns above the bar, it would be easy to categorise this as a redneck town, where country is as country does. But that would be wrong, and the past year has shown it.

"We don't want this Klan crap," says Mr Parton, with an obviously heartfelt sense of indignation. "This ain't a hate community. This is a retirement community."

James Byrd was dragged to death behind a pick-up truck on a steamy hot night last summer. His killers wanted to use the incident to establish a local branch of a far-right group. For part of the journey, they dragged his body through a black neighbourhood. God knows what the residents heard, or if they realised what was hurtling down the road behind the truck.

But this is the South, and memories go back some. Many will remember when a lynching was a common event. East Texas still has some pockets of dense racism, towns such as Vidor, where an important Klan group is based, and where a black face is as unfamiliar as a fur coat in midsummer. For Jasper, after the death of James Byrd came the media, and with them the Klan, demonstrating in the pretty court square, then the Texas Rangers to keep order, and the New Black Panthers, out to make their point, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and basketball player Dennis Rodman, who paid for the Byrd funeral, and then the media again, for the trial of John William King, one of three defendants.

For the town, it was a disaster: not just because any murder this vile is a catastrophe, nor because of its racially inflammatory nature. Jasper cares deeply what people think about it beyond the pine woods.

Historically this is a lumber town, set in the dense pine forests of this corner of the South and established around the rail line after the loggers stopped using the river to float timber down to the coast. But the 18-wheeler trucks that roar up and down between the woods and the paper and pulp factories of Lufkin and Beaumont are no longer the most important driving force in the local economy.

The greatest assets Jasper has are the Sam Rayburn lake up the road, one of the best bass fishing lakes in America, and the tourists who come to fish it. Last year's heatwave took its toll on the lake, and the killing threatened to dry up the flow of visitors. And what people said, from the beginning, was: this isn't us, and we want people to know it.

They did things right in Jasper, from the very beginning. It was already a mixed community, in the sense that it is about half-black, half-white, with a white sheriff, the rock-solid Billy Rowles, and a black mayor, the dignified R C Horn. The town began a sometimes painful dialogue about race, which much of the white population did not think was an issue, but the black population knew was. What about the fence that separated black and white in the cemetery, they pointed out?

Ray Parton went out there last month and helped to tear down the fence, a wrought-iron affair about three feet off the ground that had been there as long as anyone can remember. The legacy of race in Jasper, as everywhere else in the South, is a deadweight, as much to do with unexamined assumptions as deliberate decisions. "It'd been there since the civil war, or before," said Mr Parton. "I mean, that just don't comprehend."

A killing such as that of James Byrd or Stephen Lawrence is not just about taking a life: it is about negating a life, erasing it. A lynching is, has always been, about power.

Emory University in Georgia keeps a collection of lynching memorabilia, shocking because of its very banality. In each picture you can see the body, swinging in the wind or burning, and the crowds of men, women, children, in their Sunday finery, smiling, not with bloodlust but like partygoers on bonfire night.

One image is burnt into my mind, an old shot of the main street in the tiny town of Cairo, Illinois - a northern state - with a ceremonial arch, and the notation in scratchy handwriting: "Where they hung the coon". It is like indicating your room on a hotel postcard with a cross; the life that was taken is of no more import, counted for nothing in the first place. The event itself is what mattered, and needs no more explanation.

Jasper has tried to atone for that event. It put Mr King on trial, found him guilty, and sentenced him to death. But beyond that, it sought to use the killing not to entrench racial barriers as King and his drunken friends hoped but to change things for the better, just a little. It will never be a liberal's paradise - there are no black faces in June Bug's, and there aren't most nights - but then nowhere in the US is.

Race is a time bomb in America. Washington, the capital, is divided down the middle between white and black, with 14th Street the notional border.

New York is more mixed, but a white face north of 96th Street is still a rarity. The best the country has come up with so far is a form of "peaceful co- existence." In Jasper, at least the bodies rest together now, even if they were apart in life.

Ian Jack is on holiday

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