In America

Racial tension again tests Texas town

By Deborah Feyerick, CNN

Jasper, Texas (CNN) - Down a long winding road in the deep east Texas woods, a car pulls up to the Huff Creek cemetery. Unfazed by the 100-degree heat, Rodney Pearson walks to the road and points to the exact spot where he first saw the body of James Byrd Jr. more than 14 years ago.

"When they tied him to the truck he was going from side to side," says Pearson, describing how three white men chained Byrd, a black man, to the back of their pickup truck, and dragged him more than two miles before dumping his body outside the cemetery.

Pearson was the first black trooper working in Jasper, with the Texas Department of Public Safety.

He swipes his hand diagonally across his chest explaining how Byrd’s head and shoulder became separated from the rest of his body after a particularly sharp curve near a drain pipe. "His head and shoulders caught right here and severed it off his body," Pearson said.

The killers were caught. Two were sentenced to death; the other got life in prison. The town of Jasper tried to heal.

Despite the racial nature of the crime, Pearson says he never experienced overt racism while living in Jasper, a small town of about 7,500 people a 2½-hour drive from Houston. He and his wife, Sandra, who is white, married in Jasper, and they got along with everyone, blacks and whites.

But the couple say that changed after Pearson was hired as interim police chief, a position that became permanent two months later, in April 2011.

From that moment, Pearson says, the trouble began.

Despite being the town's first black police chief, Pearson was never given the traditional public swearing-in ceremony.

"They wanted to wait until things calmed down," he said.

But things did not calm down, and what seemed like a simple hire has turned Jasper upside down.

Pearson was hired by a city council composed of four black members and one white member. The vote divided along racial lines: the blacks voted in favor, and the white council member voted against.

The problem was compounded when Jasper Mayor Mike Lout, who is white, backed a different candidate - an 18-year veteran of the Jasper police force.

The City Council, not the mayor, chooses the police chief. Two black council members say the mayor overstepped his authority and tried to interfere in the selection.

Lout, a former friend of Pearson's, says he thought Pearson lacked leadership and was surprised when Pearson was given the job.

"He just basically didn't have, he didn't know how to tell other people what to do and how to command, I felt," Lout said. "I didn’t think he was the man for the job then, I don’t think he’s the man for the job now. As far as it being a black-or-white issue, I've pushed for a white and I've pushed for a black man as candidates for that job. In fact, the man that I pushed the most was a black man from Houston."

Pearson’s lawyer, Cade Bernsen defends Pearson's credentials, and says what happened next was nothing short of “systematic discrimination on the part of the city against the chief.”

Pearson says members of the Jasper Police Department deliberately excluded him from meetings, failed to notify him about several crime scenes, and staged sick-outs. Several officers quit after being reassigned.

And Mayor Lout, whom Pearson had long considered a friend, stopped speaking to him. Lout disputes this. "We did speak to each other, we just didn't talk.”

The racial divide soon intensified.

Pearson says he was subjected to daily attacks on local radio station KJAS, which is owned by Jasper Mayor Mike Lout.

Comments on the radio station's Facebook page contained hateful messages and racial slurs, including the n-word. One woman wrote, "I think there is about to be a stink here in Jasper bigger than the Byrd ordeal!!!" seemingly referring to the 1998 racial stand-off in Jasper between members of the Ku Klux Klan and Black Panthers.

Another man circulated a condom ad showing pictures of Pearson, two black council members, plus President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, saying their parents should have listened and used protection.

"There's been so many untruths printed, so many untruths said," says Sandra Pearson."It's just, it's very hurtful. And I just, I never understood that people could go to that magnitude of hate."

An all-white group of residents calling itself the League of Concerned Citizens of Jasper launched a petition drive to recall the black council members for incompetence and misconduct in hiring Pearson.

One of the organizers of the petition, Lance Caraway, refused to speak to CNN.

Former councilwoman Terrya Norsworthy, who was recalled, defends hiring Pearson, who had 20 years of law enforcement experience and strong ties to both the black and white communities.

"We were not incompetent when we voted for raises for the city of Jasper," Norsworthy said. "We were not incompetent when we bought $100,000 in equipment. Now all of a sudden we make a positive decision for the city and we find ourselves recalled?"

Pearson’s lawyer went to federal court to try and stop the recall vote but was unsuccessful.

During a hearing, a forensic expert testified that a number of signatures on the recall petitions circulated by the Concerned Citizens were likely forged.

Magistrate Judge Zack Hawthorn, who allowed the vote to take place anyway, said it appeared almost all the petitioners and signers were white, suggesting race was a factor.

Two African-American city council members were recalled, one resigned and another finished out his term. In May 2012, the new City Council was sworn in. The racial makeup of the council was now reversed: four whites and one black member.

On June 14, without ever interviewing Pearson about the job he was doing as chief, the new City Council fired him. He was ordered to clear out his office that night.

"I was fired over race and now I feel that me and my family are marked,” says Pearson.

Pearson has filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charging he was treated unfairly because of his race and was denied benefits and salary given to previous police chiefs.

The city has not yet responded to the EEOC complaint.

"They never had problem with him as a state trooper … but as soon as he became that most symbolic of positions, chief of police, then they have a problem; then he’s incompetent and the City Council that elected him, they're also incompetent,” said Cade Bernsen, Pearson's attorney.

The recalled council members have asked FBI Director Robert Mueller to investigate, citing “recent events … reminiscent of past racial hatred and treatment of minorities.”

They are waiting for a reply.