JASPER, Texas — After the firing of Jasper’s first black police chief, black community leaders in this East Texas town say racial tensions are at "an all-time high."
"The town of Jasper is sitting on a powder keg,” said Rodney Norsworthy, a pastor at Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church. “And someone's already got the match lit."
Last week a newly elected city council voted 4-1 to terminate Rodney Pearson, whose detractors say was never qualified to hold the position. The firing came after a year and a half of political infighting that has torn apart friendships and divided the town along racial lines. For Norsworthy and other black leaders, the events surrounding Pearson's dismissal have been a bitter reminder of the racial harmony they say was never quite achieved after the 1998 dragging death of James Byrd Jr.
But in interviews, several white Jasper residents said the firing had not caused waves beyond a small group who were intentionally “stirring the pot” — and that Pearson was let go because he wasn't fit for the job, not because of his race.
“It kind of makes me sad, that this instantly becomes a racial thing, when I don’t think that’s the whole story,” said Dianne Pace, a middle school history teacher whose family has lived in Jasper for seven generations and who is the new chairwoman of the Jasper County Republican Party.
Lance Caraway, the owner of the local gun shop and a Pearson opponent, blamed the escalating tension on "agitators" who he said were exploiting the situation for their own benefit.
"They are the same black preachers that have been here forever and amen — call them Jesse Jackson wannabes — but they love the victimology," he said. "They just love to live as victims."
Other residents rejected the notion that only a vocal minority within the black community was dissatisfied with the outcome of the elections and Pearson’s firing.
“Who said that, were they white or black?” said Tommy Adams, a former Jasper City Council member who survived a recent recall election but didn’t run again, when asked whether that was an accurate reading of the situation.
Ray Lewis, of Faith Temple Church of God in Christ, said many white residents did not understand how upset the black community was over Pearson’s firing.
"They think it's just a game, but the environment is very hostile," he said. “There are people out there who want to burn this town down.”
He added that the preachers had been the most outspoken because they had the least to lose by doing so.
"This is Jasper," he said. "You say the wrong thing, and you lose your job tomorrow."
The controversy was touched off when Pearson, 46, was appointed the interim chief in February 2011 by what was at the time a majority black city council. After the council passed over other candidates, including the preferred interim choice of Mayor Mike Lout and the outgoing police chief, a largely white group mounted an effort to recall the council’s three black members.
In November, two of them were removed from the council, including Norsworthy’s wife, with white candidates winning their seats. The third member, Adams, survived the recall but later resigned. In May, after the recalled members failed to reclaim their seats, a new city council was elected, this time with four white members and one black member. Once installed, the new council fired Pearson in one of its first acts, after a 45-minute public questioning in front of a packed city hall.
On Friday, Lout denied that race was a factor in Pearson’s firing but acknowledged that the controversy has divided the town, which is 46 percent white and 44 percent black, according to the latest census numbers. He did not return a call Monday seeking further comment.
Pearson’s critics point to a matrix used to rate the police chief candidates based on criteria including past chief experience, advanced degrees and municipal service, in which Pearson ranked last in a list of finalists. They also bring up a 1990 arrest on an allegation of writing a hot check, which he did not disclose on his police chief application.
Cade Bernsen, the former police chief’s attorney, said the rankings were purposely devised to discredit Pearson, who has 22 years of experience as a DPS trooper, and had never previously been used to evaluate candidates. The check, he said, was written by Pearson’s wife at the time, and was for less than $20. [Update 6/21/12: Pearson’s first wife denied writing the check and contends she should not be blamed for Pearson’s actions. Pearson, in a statement made by his attorney today, agrees with his ex-wife that she should not be connected in any way to the situation in Jasper.]
This is not the first time the town of 8,000 has found itself precariously navigating race relations. And though many residents object to the way the Byrd murder still haunts any mention of their town, there are multiple connections to the crime in the small community’s deep web of relationships. Pearson was a first responder who found Byrd’s body, following the drag marks two miles down the road to find his severed head and shoulder. Raymond Hopson, a council member elected in May, is a former DPS trooper and the uncle of Shawn Berry, the only one of Byrd’s three killers who grew up in Jasper — and the only one who did not get a death sentence. In another twist, Willie Land, the council member Hopson defeated, was one of four black witnesses who testified on Berry’s behalf during his murder trial.
The turn of events has also given rise to at least seven discrimination lawsuits against the city: three from white applicants for the police chief position, three from white police officers demoted or fired during Pearson’s tenure, and one from Pearson himself, filed in May before he was fired because of the rigorous background check and ranking matrix he underwent as an applicant. (Download Pearson’s complaint at the top left.) The city has so far settled two of the claims with police chief applicants, for a total of $60,000.
A federal court has weighed in on some of the issues at play. It declined to stop the recall election that replaced the two black council members last November after attorneys sued for an injunction. But in the opinion, Judge Zach Hawthorne of the Eastern District of Texas said that "some of the organizers of the recall petitions appear to have racist motivations" and that "it appears all of the citizens who spearheaded the recall effort and all of the signers of the petitions were white." (Download the ruling at the top left.)
The ruling references a Facebook posting from Caraway, the gun shop owner active in the recall efforts. After Pearson was appointed permanent police chief, he wrote: "I'LL SAY IT !!! STUPID N- - - - -S !!"
About a month later, Caraway posted an apology to the "citizens of Jasper" on his page saying the comment was "out of character" and not directed at the black community. In an interview, Caraway said he regretted his comment and that it was made in anger. He also said the reaction to it was overblown.
"I made one stupid comment," he said. "And I all of a sudden have the 14-foot pointy white hat and am running around with black babies hanging from nooses. It's ridiculous."
He said most Jasper citizens were ready to move on with their lives.
"Is everybody loading their guns and fixing to start shooting each other?” he said. “No."