JASPER, Texas — Three weeks after Rodney Pearson became Jasper County’s first black state highway patrolman, he responded to a call from the Jasper Country Club. As he pulled up to the clubhouse, his partner told him to wait.
“‘You can’t go in here,’” Pearson said his partner told him. “‘Just sit in the car.’”
Only whites were allowed inside. It was 1992.
Despite that jarring first impression, Pearson said there was not a pattern of racism in the town where he would raise his children. That changed nearly two decades later, he said, when he became the first black police chief in the city of Jasper.
Last week, after 16 months in office, Pearson was fired by a newly elected city council that said he was never qualified to hold the job. His dismissal has touched off a feud that has dredged up bitter memories of the town’s not-so-distant past. Pearson is also connected to that chapter in Jasper’s history.
On a Sunday morning in June 1998, Pearson said, he responded to a call about a body found outside a black church on Huff Creek Road. When he arrived, he found a man’s mangled limbs and torso. What he did not know as he and the sheriff followed drag marks nearly two miles down the asphalt road was that a crime scene was unfolding before him that would bring the world’s attention to Jasper.
The trail he followed was made of human flesh and blood, and it led to James Byrd Jr.’s severed head and shoulder. Suddenly the town was no longer known as the “Jewel of the Forest” but for the black man who was dragged through the piney woods in its backyard.
Three men were prosecuted for Byrd’s murder. Three East Texas juries — two made up of Jasper citizens — delivered the death penalty to two of the men and a life sentence to the third.
In the years that followed, residents worked to heal the racial divide that the crime created. Pearson said he was invited to join the country club that he once could not enter. Town leaders ceremoniously pulled down a fence that divided whites and blacks in the town cemetery.
Despite his role in the unraveling of the Byrd case, Pearson said he did not get involved in the reconciliation efforts. He said he felt it was not his battle to fight at the time.
“I didn’t grow up here,” Pearson said. “A lot of the history that I’m learning about Jasper, I’m learning about now.”
That is because, for many blacks in the community, Pearson has become a reluctant symbol of how little race relations have changed since Byrd’s death.
The cemetery fence has come down, said Rodney Norsworthy, a pastor at Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church, but the racial divide it represented has not gone away.
“It was there on Monday night at city hall,” Norsworthy said, referring to how white City Council members publicly interrogated Pearson before they fired him.
In 2006, Pearson left the Texas Department of Public Safety to go into the private sector, to work for a company that sold fire trucks and equipment. He remained active in Jasper’s civic life, becoming the town’s volunteer fire chief in 2009.
He and his wife, Sandy, enjoyed the small town where, even as an interracial couple, they encountered “zero trouble” with racial tensions. Pearson, who is white, said she would defend the town when outsiders brought up the stigma it has faced since Byrd’s killing.
Pearson said she now feels different. “I never realized in my life that people could have so much hate,” she said, “People are just eat up with hate.”
As residents organized to recall the City Council members who had appointed Pearson, the rhetoric took a nasty turn. One image that made the rounds online was a Photoshopped Trojan condom advertisement. Pearson’s headshot appeared between pictures of President Obama and Michelle Obama and two black Jasper City Council members. Underneath it said: “Could things have turned out better ... had their parents listened ????”
Lance Caraway, a leader of the recall efforts who created the image, said it was done in jest. “I like to poke fun,” he said. “There’s no dark secret heinous wish for anybody to die.”
Caraway also made a public Facebook posting after Pearson’s appointment — what he referred to as his “famous ‘stupid n-word comment’” — that offended members of the town’s black community. He said he regretted his word choice and that he was not a “white pointy hat-wearing racist.”
Pearson’s critics, including Mayor Mike Lout, said they believe the City Council passed over better candidates to give the job to Pearson. They point to a scorecard used to rate police chief candidates based on criteria including past chief experience, advanced degrees and municipal service, in which Pearson ranked last among finalists. They also bring up a 1990 arrest on an allegation of writing a check with insufficient funds and a background check the city did in which a former employer spoke unfavorably of Pearson. Cade Bernsen, Pearson’s lawyer, said the rankings were purposely devised to discredit Pearson, who has 22 years of experience as a state trooper, and the scoring system had never been used before to evaluate candidates.
Pearson has filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission over the rankings and other discriminatory treatment he said he received as an applicant and while he was chief. He plans to amend the complaint to include a charge of retaliation.
Since Pearson’s firing, Lout said that he had not received a “negative comment from anyone,” black or white.
“Pearson and his attorneys have done everything they can trying to make this a racial situation and trying to tie it to the James Byrd deal,” Lout said. “I find it tragic that they would try to use a very terrible crime, a heinous crime, for their political gain.”
Pearson views the situation differently. “It was a big step to show people we were raising up out of the ashes,” he said of his appointment. “Now we’ve been kicked back down again.
The conflict comes as the demographics of Jasper are changing. According to census numbers, since 2000, the percentage of blacks within the city limits has hovered around 44 percent. In the last 10 years the white population has dropped, to 46 percent from 48, as has the total population, to 7,600 from about 8,200.
Whites have always dominated city politics, said Guy James Gray, who served as Jasper County district attorney while Pearson was a highway patrolman and prosecuted all three defendants in the Byrd case. That has changed as the black population living within the city limits has grown, he said.
The resulting struggle for political control, Gray said, has happened without leaders on either side working together.
Gray remembered Pearson as a “reasonably adequate” officer, he said. “Not great, not bad.”
Even so, Gray shrugged off arguments that Pearson was not qualified to be police chief. Gray said both Pearson’s hiring and his firing were driven by race.
“He may have some glitches on his record,” Gray said, “but there are often police chiefs appointed who have glitches on their record.”