JASPER, Texas — When Rodney Pearson became police chief in February 2011, it was a landmark for the town of 8,000. He was the first African-American to hold the job in a place where until recently a fence still divided blacks and whites in the cemetery.
But instead of bringing progress, his tenure as police chief — and the public feuding it provoked — threatens to wrench open still-healing wounds from the brutal killing of James Byrd Jr., which secured the town's infamous place in history.
When Pearson was appointed by a majority black City Council, a largely white group of residents mounted an effort to recall three black council members. In November of last year, they succeeded in removing two of them from the council, with white candidates winning their seats. The third member who survived the recall resigned. In May, the council members lost their bids to reclaim their seats, and a new city council was elected, this time with 4 white members and 1 black.
Then on Monday, in one of its first acts, the newly elected City Council hauled Pearson in for a public questioning that resulted in his termination after the three hour meeting. The vote was 4-1 along racial lines. (Watch the entire meeting at KJAS, the radio station owned by Jasper mayor Mike Lout, here.)
"This is racism at its finest," the council's single remaining black member, Alton Scott, was quoted in the Beaumont Enterprise as saying afterward.
When he was transferred to Jasper from West Texas in 1992, Pearson became the county’s first black highway patrolman. Six years later he would be the first responder who discovered Byrd’s body, following the drag marks two miles down the road until he stumbled upon Byrd's severed head and shoulder.
Pearson’s lawyer says his firing is the product of a 16-month smear campaign from community members, including Lout, who targeted him because of his race. Pearson’s wife, Sandy, who managed a medical office in town, was let go from her job three weeks ago because of “low morale” in the workplace, she said.
Mayor Mike Lout said Friday that "if there was any race involved in it, then I don't know about it" — and that Pearson was fired because of his incompetence. The political infighting surrounding the recall election and Pearson's position as chief has inflamed racial tensions in the town, he said, on "both sides."
"In this town we've got black, we've got white, and a big Hispanic population, and we all need to come together because we have to live here," he said.
In an interview at their home Thursday evening, the Pearsons described a “nightmarish” ordeal that has turned the town where they have raised their children inside out.
“I’m really disgusted. I’m hurt. It’s shameful,” said Rodney Pearson, who said the experience has opened his eyes to the deep-rooted racism still alive in the 21st century. The level of bitterness is something he said he has never encountered, even living in Jasper as part of an interracial couple with his wife, Sandy, who is white.
“People that I called my friends, now they won’t even speak to me,” he said.
The town’s local political turmoil is playing out as its residents have just elected a black Republican to represent them in the state Legislature, James White of Hillister. White said he was not getting involved in the situation.
“Jasper is an incorporated city, and it has that power to fire and hire the police chief, and at my legislative office we don't do local politics,” he said. “We need to allow Jasper to take care of its own business.”
And not everyone in Jasper agrees that the trouble with Pearson is because of his race. Charles Gee, who has lived in the area since the early 1950s and works in the logging industry, strongly objected to the notion that there was any racial motive behind the police chief’s firing. Gee said the controversy came from a small group of citizens “stirring the pot” — and that the town has long moved on from the Byrd murder.
“If people will just look at the facts, they’ll understand,” he said, adding that the council acted because of Pearson’s alleged incompetence.
According to an account of the council meeting from the Enterprise, members questioned Pearson on police procedures and the hours he keeps as chief. In one exchange, Lout asked why he had not appeared at the scene of two major crimes:
"In the past, when we had a major crime, you would always see Chief (Todd) Hunter at the scene," Lout said, "Where are you at these scenes?"
Pearson said he is at the majority of the major crime scenes but was not called to two recent calls.
"Whose fault is that?" Lout asked.
"We are working with new dispatchers on this issue," Pearson said.
"No, it's your fault," Lout said.
Another resident, who spoke on background, worried that recent events might attract the attention of outside groups like the New Black Panthers and the Ku Klux Klan, both of which marched on Jasper during the trial of Byrd's killers.
Pearson said he also had that concern — and that he had been approached by the Panthers to see if he needed their support. He quickly turned them down.
“By no means am I looking for that,” he said, calling the day he was on duty when both groups came to town one of the scariest days of his life.
The next chapter of Jasper’s saga will likely unfold in the courts. Pearson filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in May, before he was fired. His attorneys are currently ammending it to include a charge of retaliation. (Download it to the left.)
The former police chief is being represented on a largely pro-bono basis by David Bernsen, who was a Democratic state senator from Beaumont until 2003, and his son Cade.