After Nearly Five Years, City of Jasper Continues to Heal

The crime outraged the nation.

James Byrd Junior was walking along a lonely road in Jasper in 1998.  Three white men offered to give him a ride in their pickup.  Minutes later, Byrd was chained to the back bumper. He died a horrible death. Now ABC's "Nightline" is coming back to Jasper to see how the people of that town have changed after nearly five years.

Channel 7's Morgan Palmer traveled to Jasper as well, and found a city that is in a never-ending process of healing.

There are very few people who haven't heard of Jasper, Texas. But those who call Jasper home, say the world doesn't know them at all.

Rev. Johnnie Ray Baker, a black minister from Frankston who still preaches in the Jasper area:  "Before this happened, I didn't know there was a race problem."

It's a quiet day in a place that will never be quite back to normal.

"The eyes of the world are on Jasper. And if you do anything, it's going to catch attention."

Jasper used to be just another spot on the map of Deep East Texas.

Church deacon Gary Brasher, who is white:  "This is America here. This is Hometown America."

Jasper is still a sleepy place where folks were raised, and then raised their children. But now, Jasper is more than just a name.

Baker: "When you say that you're from Jasper, the first thing they say 'Well, I don't want to go there. You live there? Well, you need to leave there. You need to move.'"

Brasher: "What town in America couldn't have woke up and said, 'Gosh, this can't happen here.'"

Gary Brasher has lived in Jasper all his life, and he feels there can be benefit from media attention. He says, "When [the national media] come in and start asking questions like what you're asking now, you have to sit and think about it."

After Byrd's death, the entire community of Jasper looked at their hearts, and what is at the heart of the community.  The media, many folks say, made the death of James Byrd into the spectacle it became -- and made "Jasper" a four-letter word.

Baker: "Like anywhere, there are good and bad people." Rev. Johnny Ray Baker is a friend of the Byrd family.

Brasher: "It was like a circus here -- camera crews, people were here, all type of celebrities, and stars."

And then, there were the activists -- black and white.

"We saw the marching and stuff go on here, right in front of our church."

It didn't help the healing that had to start in Jasper, with Jasperites alone.

"They came together -- the white ministers and the black ministers -- and had services," Baker recalls.

Brasher: "We hate that it happened here.  But it did happen, so can we learn from it?"

Today, Jasper is different.

Baker: "We had a lot of people to leave Jasper because of the stigma that Jasper has now."

Brasher: "Mentally, spiritually, and community wise, it's been a drastic change."

Some things are worse, some are better. But most understand now, to love thy neighbor, you have to know them first.

Brasher: "[Jasperites are] searching themselves to see what was happening before that we don't need to happen now."

Though Reverend Baker thinks Nightline's visit keeps everyone from healing the wounds.

He says, "They're going to stir up a lot of things. Then, people in Jasper are going to left to again live through it."

They have lived with the stigma for nearly five years now.  But they love Jasper, and are ready to use the past to teach, and to shape the future.

Brasher says he's "glad to raise my children here, glad to raise my children here. Glad to go to church here. I'll be here until God calls me somewhere else."

Nightline and PBS both are airing programs on Jasper.  PBS will be broadcasting a special called "The Two Towns of Jasper" Wednesday at 8pm. Nightline's town meeting is Thursday night at 10:35pm.

On Channel 7's News at Six tomorrow, Morgan's interview with Stella Byrd. James Byrd's mother talks about how she continues to heal, and how the words in a new book might give hope to others.

Two of the three men convicted in the murder of James Byrd, Jr. are on death row. The third man, who gave the initial confession to police, got life in prison.