DALLAS — For most people, the town of Jasper, Texas, is inextricably linked with the infamous dragging death of James Byrd in 1998.
Byrd, 49, was walking home one night when three men picked him up, drove him to the woods, bound his feet, tied him to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him for several miles until he was decapitated.
There were high-profile arrests, hate-crime charges, paparazzi-driven trials, marches by the Ku Klux Klan and the New Black Panthers, and then, supposedly, reconciliation and healing.
But this week, the town’s first black police chief was fired by the City Council, capping what the chief’s lawyer says is a “smear campaign” fueled by long-standing racial animosity.
On Monday, 16 months after he was hired by a black majority on the City Council, Police Chief Rodney Pearson was ousted during a tense council meeting. The council, which now has a white majority, voted 4 to 1 to terminate Pearson.
“This is racism at its finest,’’ council member Alton Scott, the lone dissenter and only black council member, told a reporter for the Beaumont Enterprise.
The newspaper reported that Mayor Mike Lout grilled Pearson during a long session before the firing was announced. Lout reportedly questioned the chief about how many hours he worked and why he was not present at two high-profile crime scenes.
“I’m really disgusted. I’m hurt. It’s shameful,” Pearson told the Texas Tribune in an interview Thursday. “People that I called my friends, now they won’t even speak to me.’’
The Tribune reported that “the experience has opened his eyes to the deep-rooted racism still alive in the 21st century. The level of bitterness is something he said he has never encountered, even living in Jasper as part of an interracial couple with his wife, Sandy, who is white.’’
The Tribune reported that Pearson’s wife was let go about three weeks ago from her job managing a medical office because of “low morale’’ in the workplace.
At an emergency meeting Tuesday, the City Council tapped former police chief Harlan Alexander to serve on an interim basis until Pearson is replaced.
“Harlan Alexander served as police chief here in Jasper for 25 plus years,” Lout told the Beaumont Enterprise. “He is very well-known and respected throughout this community and he has the ability to take this department and serve as an interim chief.”
Alexander served as police chief from the late 1960s until 1998, according to a Jasper radio station. He has reportedly said that he is not interested in becoming police chief again on a permanent basis. He has been working as a court baliff and security officer at the Jasper County Courthouse, according to KJAS radio.
Calls to Lout’s City Hall office got a busy signal Friday afternoon.
Pearson’s dismissal culminated months of showdowns within the local power structure.
Earlier this year, Pearson hired lawyers to represent him in an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claim. According to a report in the Beaumont Enterprise, the claim was not mentioned by the council during the meeting this week.
The complaint was apparently filed after a local recall election last month resulted in several black council members losing their seats to whites.
Meanwhile, some black residents launched a recall petition to unseat Lout, but that effort was unsuccessful.
Pearson’s firing was among the new council’s first official acts.
The lawman had long-standing ties to Jasper. As a member of the Texas Rangers, a state law enforcement agency, he became the county’s first black highway patrolman in 1992 when he was transferred to the Jasper area from West Texas, according to the Tribune.
“Six years later, he would be the first responder who discovered Byrd’s body, following the drag marks two miles down the road until he stumbled upon the man’s severed head and shoulder,’’ according to the Tribune.
Some local officials seem to realize that Pearson’s firing will likely renew outside scrutiny of the town.
“We came out of that Byrd murder okay,” former Jasper County sheriff Billy Rowles told the Beaumont Enterprise. “It was a horrible and horrific crime, and lots of things were said about us that we proved weren’t true.”
But in the past year and a half, Rowles said, the controversy over Pearson has “disintegrated” the image the town “fought tooth and nail to change.”
Lori Stahl writes about politics and culture in Texas. Follow her on Twitter@LoriStahl.
This post has been updated since it was first published.