Academic journal article Communication Studies

The Jasper Dragging Death: Crisis Communication and the Community Newspaper

Academic journal article Communication Studies

The Jasper Dragging Death: Crisis Communication and the Community Newspaper

Article excerpt

During the early morning hours of Sunday, June 7, 1998, what was left of the body of James Byrd Jr. was found on Huff Creek Road, on the outskirts of a small, rural town in East Texas, Jasper. Later the same day police arrested three young white males, one of whom confessed early Monday morning. Byrd had been beaten, then chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged almost three miles to his death apparently because he was black. When news of the murder broke later that Monday, the reaction of the rest of the country was outrage, knowing that Byrd's murder had taken place in an area historically steeped in racism and Ku Klux Klan activity. On Tuesday the media onslaught began, with hundreds of journalists descending on the town in search of the "good old boy" sheriff and an "old South" angle.

Byrd's dragging death was immediately termed "one of the most vicious racial crimes in modern Texas history" (Stewart, 1998, p. A1). Jasper was described as located in an area, East Texas, "long vilified by the nation and fellow Texans as a hot bed of racism" (Bragg, 1998, p. A1) and "notorious as a redneck refuge with a fearsome history of black lynchings" (Graczyk, 1998, p. 8)--a place where links to the Klan were strong but clandestine ("Mayor of Jasper," 1998). As one resident, who requested anonymity, noted, "We know the Klan is here, but we just don't know who they are" (Turner, 1998, p. A1). Repeated references were made in the media to the Klan's presence in nearby Vidor, where a KKK rally had been staged just a month before and black newcomers had been recently welcomed by teen-agers wearing sheets (Jones, 1998).

When white officials tried to downplay racism, the reaction of black residents was reported as skeptical. For example, when the local sheriff, who was white, claimed at a press conference "we have no organized KKK or Aryan Brotherhood groups here in Jasper County," black residents were described as having responded with "whoops and catcalls" (Stewart, 1998, p. A1). Interviews with black residents led to reports of previous questionable deaths such as that of a black college student who was dating a white woman, job discrimination and lack of service to blacks at some local restaurants and clubs--all of which were cited as contributing to "a general atmosphere of racial animosity" (Turner, 1998, p. A1). On a grander scale, the very nature of the act seemed to warrant the presumption of the town as racist. As one reporter noted, "The moment the sun came up on the first Sunday in June and pulled back the covers on a grotesque crime scene, America's scarlet letter was branded on the courthouse clock tower--R, for racist" (Thurow, 1998, p. A15).

Clearly, the circumstances called for a response from the community. One reason was the threat the dragging death posed to the area's second largest industry, tourism. A couple of recent timber plant closings had pushed the area's unemployment rate up to 12%. A major drop-off in tourism, which counted on nearby fishing tournaments to fill area hotels and restaurants, would have been a devastating blow to the local economy (Thurow, 1998). There was also the possibility of the crisis escalating into more racial violence, which would have furthered sullied the town's image. Some black residents initially feared that Byrd's murder might have been part of a more widespread conspiracy. One story circulating was that a note had been left near the body, reading "One down: two more to go" (Garza & Siemaszko, 1998, p. 5). Outside the community racial tensions had been stirred anew. Kenneth Lyons, pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church, which was attended by the Byrd family, says that numerous blacks from nearby cities told him of their anger and readiness to come to Jasper after Byrd's murder (K. Lyons, personal communication, July 12, 2000). There were also rumors of a possible retaliation by the black community in Jasper itself (Hart, 1998).

The Jasper dragging death merits scholarly study for a number of reasons. …

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