July 1st, 2012
07:34 PM ET

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. FULL POST