Former Cop Talks Racism in Jasper, Texas

The first black police chief of a town made infamous by a 1998 hate crime says he was fired over race.

Rodney Pearson (Courtesy of Rodney Pearson)

The suit maps out a ruthless scheme whereby city leaders allegedly submitted forged signatures on recall petitions to remove black council members, creating a white majority that unjustly fired Pearson without cause. The suit also claims that, in what was reportedly the first recall of a public official in the history of Jasper, Mayor Lout unlawfully blocked a city council investigation into irregularities concerning the recall.

Bernsen said the suit rightly targets Lout. “We’re not only going after the city of Jasper but the mayor because he uses it to stoke racial animosity and create division within the community. They’ve accused us of playing the race card. No, they played the race card when they started saying ‘nigger’ on Facebook.”

Pearson and his wife, Sandy, 38, who is white, say they can’t be sure but are almost certain that their interracial marriage and blended family served as an impetus for the attacks on Pearson’s name and reputation in this East Texas town, which made history in 1998 after the racially motivated dragging death of James Byrd Jr. Pearson was the first officer to discover Byrd’s body. The couple has a blended family of sons, two teenagers and a 25-year-old, who recently moved to Jasper to live with Sandy because Pearson had to move 90 miles away to work at an oil refinery. He lives in a travel trailer in Port Arthur near the refinery.

“My husband’s firing has changed everything about our family,” Sandy told The Root. “It’s changed the way we feel about the town that our children have grown up in. I’ve always loved Jasper. I’ve always defended Jasper, especially after the Byrd murder. People would always ask where we were from, and we always defended Jasper. Once he was named police chief, they went from attacking my husband to eventually attacking me. Everything that was normal a year and a half ago is now gone.”

For his part, Pearson says that he hopes that the suit will draw attention to what he sees as deeply entrenched racism and the importance of challenging deleterious attitudes in the 21st century.

“A lot of people have said, ‘you are going to be a rich man,’ ” he said of filing the suit. “It’s not about the money. It’s about the principle. I was raised with morals. You treat people the way you want to treated. In this case, I was treated unfairly. And it’s more of the pride in me to show the world that it’s not just about the money. This is the 21st century, and things like this shouldn’t be going on in America.”

Lynette Holloway is a contributing editor for The Root.