(The Root) — The head of the Texas NAACP described the unceremonious firing of Jasper's first black police chief as nothing short of a virtual lynching, and praised the former law-enforcement officer's decision in October to file suit against the city made famous by a 1998 hate crime — a suit that the city has not yet answered.
"The chief was lynched," Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP in Austin, told The Root. "It was a horrible thing that occurred to him. He had no opportunity to vindicate himself. There is no way an objective person can look at this and conclude that the whole thing was not driven by race."
Indeed, that is exactly what former Jasper Police Chief Rodney Pearson alleges in a federal lawsuit filed this fall in Beaumont against the city, Mayor Mike Lout and several municipal officials. The suit, which seeks unspecified damages, alleges that city officials conspired not only to terminate him on June 11 but also to destroy his reputation through a mayor-owned local radio station, social media sites and other media outlets.
"The courts have to make a clear statement that the American people will not tolerate this kind of thing," Bledsoe said in response to a call from The Root about the suit, which he had not yet reviewed. "Chief Pearson deserved every opportunity to perform, and he did not get that, from what I have seen."
Pearson's firing, which occurred after 16 months on the job, touched off a firestorm of media controversy that flared for months (the interim police chief who replaced him abruptly resigned without notice on Nov. 19). The suit charges that city leaders subjected him to ongoing, purposeful discrimination and unlawful employment practices, including the illegal release of his personnel file and background check, his lawyer, Cade Bernsen, told The Root. The suit accuses co-conspirators of the mayor of slandering Pearson with racial slurs on the radio station's Facebook page and orchestrating false allegations of assault against him.
Mayor Lout did not return several phone calls from The Root, which were placed to City Hall and his radio station, but he has denied the allegations, according to the Associated Press.
The slurs and accusations have made it difficult for Pearson to obtain a job, forcing him to leave law enforcement, he told The Root. The 46-year-old former police chief works at a security checkpoint at an oil refinery in Port Arthur, Texas.
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.