Twenty years ago, three men with ties to white supremacist groups chained 49-year-old James Byrd Jr. to the back of a pickup truck. They dragged him for miles, strewing his remains along the backroads of Jasper, Texas.
It was a grisly crime that seemed to come out of a different era, when black men could be lynched with impunity.
But by 1998 times had changed. The suspects were rounded up by the white sheriff. They were arraigned by the white district attorney and put on trial. Their cases were heard by non-all-white juries.
If that were all that was required for racial justice, the story would end there.
But as we have been painfully reminded over and over, the criminal justice system is not the cure-all for racial violence in America.
Something more fundamental and psychological must change in the hearts and minds of those who tolerate — and thus perpetuate — racial injustice.
And I can’t think of a better story to demonstrate this truth than what co-directors Marco Williams and Whitney Dow tell in their remarkable 2003 film, “Two Towns of Jasper.”
I am happy to report that this documentary, which I’ve been recommending for years, is streaming for free during the month of January on PBS.org. It’s also available through Kanopy, a free streaming service offered by select libraries. (The DVD may also be in your library.)
Black and white filming
The film’s premise is simple — send an all-black film crew (led by Williams) into Jasper’s black community, and an all-white crew (led by Dow) into the white community of this east Texas town, population 7160, while the trials of the three defendants are going on and front-of-mind to those living there.
Williams hangs out at a black-owned beauty shop, while Dow spends time at a diner with regulars of a morning “Bubbas” club.
Racially, these citizens of Jasper see the case through completely different lenses.
“When Mr. Byrd was brutally murdered, we didn’t rage, we didn’t go out and burn things, we didn’t take an eye for an eye,” says a stylist at the beauty shop.
Yet her suggestion, shared by others in the room, is that they would have every right to rage. For black residents of Jasper, the killing of James Byrd merely reinforced, albeit violently, the impression that whites in town consider them second-class citizens.
“Why does a bank with a whole bunch of black customers not have anyone working for it who’s black?” she asks. “A whole buncha things coming to light.”
At the all-white diner, though, conversation veers toward the personal character of James Byrd Jr., whose drunkenness was well known throughout town.
“I think he should be judged by the way he lived, not the way he died,” one patron says.
“He shouldn’t be held up as a role model,” says a second.
“Too late!” says a third.
Byrd’s relatives, however, don’t hold him up as a “role model.” James Jr., they say, was a troubled soul whose addiction to alcohol got in the way of his efforts to be a responsible family man. But that doesn’t mean he deserved to die.
Every family tree bears troubled fruit. The whites who grumble about the media attention on Byrd’s death fail to recognize that they are using his problems to deny him full humanity. If they saw him as fully human, they would understand the media’s attention.
For then they would recognize that the victims and survivors of hate crimes in east Texas historically never got justice.
When one of Byrd’s relatives declares that this could be “the first time in 400 years that a white man got the death penalty for killing a black man,” he may be exaggerating — but not by much.
The invisible veil of race
Elsewhere, Dow finds whites who react to Byrd’s dragging death by looking around, for the first time, and seeing what different lives the two races have lived in Jasper for generations.
A white minister walks through the town’s largest cemetery and realizes, to his astonishment, that it’s segregated! The demarcation line is a fence running the length of the graveyard. He calls up some African-American ministers, and soon the fence comes down.
What is much harder to bring down is the invisible fence that blinds white residents of Jasper from seeing the very different reality of black lives.
This reality was beautifully captured by W.E.B. Du Bois in his classic collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk. In a recollection of his childhood, Du Bois recalls a white Southern girl at a ball, refusing to accept his offer of a dance. This, he writes, was the moment when
“… it dawned upon me with a certain suddeness that I was different from the others; or like [them perhaps] in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows.” W.E.B. Du Bois, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” from The Souls of Black Folk (Project Gutenberg)
This point is underscored by a local white nationalist that Dow befriends.
“Almost every black person is going to tell you there’s racism in their town and most white people are going to say no, because they don’t see it,” he says.
As it happens, this young man, his back full of Aryan Power tattoos, is the one who makes the most moral progress over the months that Dow and Williams are in town filming the trials of Byrd’s killers.
The brutality of the crime — and the fact that it was committed by white nationalists like himself — has clearly shaken him. But something else is going on. Life is changing him.
During the filming he falls in love with a single mom and becomes a family man. He gets promoted at his job, where he’s regularly exposed to people of color, like “the Mexican” that he recently helped (as he proudly notes to the camera).
To be sure, he still thinks most whites “don’t want to be around black people” and go along with racial mixing only because they “have a guilt complex.” But he’s young, and with each fleeting glimpse of another person’s humanity — each brief recognition that other men like him share the same aspirations for a better life — there is the hope that he’ll change.
Letting out secrets
In a retrospective video filmed years after “Two Towns of Jasper” was released, the co-directors were asked how the people they interviewed reacted to their portrayals in the film. Dow says something very important about the unease residents in small communities feel when expressing their true feelings about race:
Undoubtedly it was awkward for people in town to have their views on race and James Byrd Jr. broadcast in public. Yet it’s entirely possible that the residents of these two towns were hearing the opinions of their neighbors across the color line for the first time in their lives.
Thanks to the directors’ honest yet nuanced portrayal of a community still reeling from a brutal hate crime, “Two Towns of Jasper” offers a chance to pierce the invisible veil that, to this day, divides people racially.
Learn more about the lonely battle DuBois and Charles G. Woodson fought for Black History 100 years ago.
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