RETURN TO “TWO TOWNS OF JASPER”

The state of Texas has executed John William King for his role in the 1998 dragging-murder of James Byrd, a 40-year-old African American, in Jasper, Texas. If anybody deserved the death penalty it was King and his cohorts, Lawrence Brewer, who was executed in 2011, and Shawn Berry, who was not executed on the grounds that he was not motivated by race hatred, and was sentenced instead to life in prison. Whether the state of Texas was morally justified in executing King and Brewer or anyone else is a question for another time; sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

I was working at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting several months after the murder when we received a funding application from two filmmakers, Marco Williams and Whitney Dow, who wanted to build a PBS documentary around interviews with Jasper residents. Marco and Whitney were not as experienced as many of the filmmakers who looked to CPB to support their documentaries. But what made their idea, which they called “Two Towns of Jasper,” intriguing was how they planned to conduct the interviews: Marco, who is African American, would work with a black crew to interview African Americans, while Whitney, who is white, would work with a white crew and interview white Jasperians, the idea being to come as close as possible to finding out what members of the two groups really thought about the crime when they talked among themselves.

The internal discussion at CPB about whether to fund “Two Towns” was, to say the least, spirited. No one doubted that the black and white interview subjects would be more candid apart than together. But the idea seemed so un-PBS, so un-public broadcasting, maybe so wrong. And potentially so controversial—something to think about for an organization like CPB whose funding came from Congress.

It was, in fact, the liveliness of the internal debate that convinced me—and my colleagues; we ultimately supported it—that we ought to fund “Two Towns.” If the film spurred the kind of conversation among its viewers it sparked among the CPB programming staff, I thought, it would be an investment worth making. As a country, and—speaking as someone who had lived in Texas for almost twenty years—as a state, we needed to know how people really felt about racial issues. And specifically, we needed to come to grips with whether the horrendous crime was an isolated incident, or evidence that, to borrow from Faulkner, East Texas’s Jim Crow past was not only not dead, but not even past.

“Two Towns of Jasper” did not provide, nor could it provide, definitive answers to such questions. What it could do is to scratch just a bit beneath the surface. And so it did, at least for me, and for Ted Koppel’s Nightline, which built a Jasper-based forum on “Two Towns.” The interview clips—again, at least for me, based on a good many trips to East Texas as an EEOC investigator and conciliator, and on many interviews with both black and white East Texans—had the ring of candor.

White interviewees seemed appalled: at the crime, and at the possibility that outsiders might see the crime as evidence that racism was alive and well in Jasper, which they believed had moved beyond such brutal racial violence. To the African American interviewees, however, the crime was no surprise. The cruelty of the crime was shocking, I heard them say. But not the underlying racism. That had never gone away. You can watch “Two Towns of Jasper” online and see what you think

What would the residents of Jasper say today, almost a generation after the crime, trial and “Two Towns”? Did the viciousness of the killing shock them into seeing how they looked outside of East Texas and bring the two towns of Jasper closer together? Did the execution of two of the murderers bring closure to the racial divide? Or is racism in East Texas, and the violence it spawns, still not dead, still not even past?

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