JASPER, Texas — Even a glance at the city limit sign brings to mind one memory, and evokes one very strong emotion.
But insiders say the outsiders who think “hate” when they think of Jasper, Texas, need to think again.
“I don’t think that’s the definition of Jasper,” said Rashad Lewis, who grew up in Jasper. "The definition to me is — I believe that my city is a great place with some hurdles that we still need to climb past.”
Lewis was 12 years old on June 7, 1998, when three white supremacists from Jasper attacked a black man. They beat him, spray painted his face, chained him to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him for three miles to his death.
James Byrd, Jr. was alive when the dragging began. His body was left in pieces all along Huff Creek Road. It is one of the most heinous hate crimes in Texas history.
Almost 21 years later, the trees lining Huff Creek Road are taller, which means the shadows are too. And they tower like haunting memories over every twist and turn.
Lewis is now a Jasper city councilman, and he’s running for mayor.
“We are about 54 percent African American,” he said, “and I am the only African American in local government at this point.”
His statistic shows this small southeast Texas town still has lots of room to grow, but it’s come pretty far already.
“In the beginning, people wouldn’t say they were from Jasper, they’d say southeast Texas,” recalls Richard Foshage, who has served as a priest at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Jasper for 35 years. “Oh my goodness, the first day, people were frightened.”
Foshage says Byrd’s survivors led the way, choosing grace when they could have chosen anger and rage.
“Look at us – all different colors, like a rainbow!” said Betty Boatner, speaking at a prayer vigil organized by Foshage and other Jasper ministers on Wednesday night, to coincide with the execution of Bill King, one of Byrd’s convicted killers.
“There’s nothing too hard for God to do,” she said. “He gives you joy at midnight. When your tears start rolling down your face, he’ll wipe them.”
She told the crowd her family was a testament to what’s possible.
“We are overcomers, by the help of the Lord,” she said.
At the vigil, Foshage led a prayer for King’s family.
Boatner bowed her head and asked for mercy upon King’s soul.
“As we relive it, if we can own it and learn to put the pieces together — forgetting it would be a disservice to James Byrd,” Lewis said.
Jasper is more than what happened to James Byrd, Jr.
“They can’t pigeonhole us and say that’s who were are today,” Foshage said.
It’s a city built on faith and forgiveness.