HEMPHILL, TEX. -- Loyal Garner died here two weeks ago, but the bell keeps tolling, for he was an ordinary man whose death could only be described as extraordinary. In life, he was a truck driver and father of six young children. In death, he has become another troubling symbol for this small town in east Texas and for all America.
Hemphill, nestled in the pine woods near the Louisiana border, has about 1,300 residents. Half of them are white, half black. Many people here say there were no racial problems before Loyal Garner died and are none today. The people who say that tend to be white. Garner was black.
He lived not in Hemphill but 30 miles away, across the Louisiana border in another small town, Florien.
Late on Christmas, he and his brother and a friend drove into Texas to pick up one of their cars. The police suspected him of driving while intoxicated and arrested him for refusing to take the breath test. They took him to the county jail, a small concrete building just off the old town square, where he was beaten so badly that he lapsed into a coma and died two days later. Three white men -- the police chief and two deputy sheriffs -- were indicted last week on charges of violating his civil rights.
It has been said of Hemphill that one has to have a pretty good reason to come here. Yesterday, more than 200 people from Houston, Shreveport, Orange, Nacogdoches, San Augustine and Lufkin drove along ice-slicked country highways in the early morning light to get here. They gathered at Knox Chapel Baptist Church, a clapboard building on a hillside on the edge of town. Most of them had never seen Hemphill before, and none of them knew Garner. But in a sense they felt they had been down the same roads before.
The Rev. Earnest Charles took a busload of 42 parishioners from his St. Savior church in northeast Houston. "Why go to Hemphill?" he asked rhetorically of his listeners this morning, standing at the pulpit in blue overalls, his voice deep and rich. "Why get involved? I go because I'm ashamed that in America today this type of atrocity could still go on."
In the left corner of the church sat Lawrence Jones, a black plumber from Nacogdoches. Jones is 34, the age Loyal Garner was when he died. He drove alone 40 miles to the church meeting, motivated, he said, by curiosity, anger and fright.
"The frightening part is that I know this is going to happen again," said Jones, who brought a note pad and pen to take notes at the session. "I know that it will happen again in other parts of the country -- anywhere, really. But more likely in some places than others. There are certain counties in east Texas where blacks know they have to be careful. My own county, Nacogdoches, is all right. There are two blacks on the sheriff's force. But here in Sabine County and up in Cherokee County, be careful. That's always been the word."
Across the room from Jones was Glenn Smith, one of about 10 white people at the gathering. Smith is running for Sabine County sheriff this March against the incumbent, Blan Greer, who has been in office since 1959. There has never been a black deputy sheriff in Sabine County. Smith, who is actively pursuing the black vote, has promised to change that if elected.
"I don't know if you can blame the Loyal Garner death on there being no black law enforcement officials here," Smith said. "It's hard for me to say whether it was a racial incident. But the time has come for blacks to be represented on the force. That's the least we can do."
The absence of blacks in Sabine County law enforcement is paralleled in area politics. While the area is nearly half black, the county government is all white, as are the state representatives. The only public official at the church meeting yesterday was state Rep. Al Edwards of Houston, chairman of Jesse L. Jackson's campaign in Texas. Mimicking the presidential candidate's trademark opening, Edwards led the congregation in a rendition of "I am Somebody."
Outside the church, down the hill at the state highway, many of Hemphill's white leaders kept a quiet watch on the scene. Sheriff Greer was there in his patrol car. His staff had been cut in half by the temporary suspension of the two deputies allegedly involved in Garner's beating death. Several state troopers were there in case of trouble. Mayor Ronnie Felts drove by several times, upset that his community was being visited by what he called "all these outside agitators."
Felts said he is glad Hemphill is finally getting some attention. "But this was not the kind of attention we were looking for. People are trying to make Hemphill something evil, but I don't think race relations here are bad at all. It's no different here than in Georgia, or in New York City for that matter."