Monday, June 4, 2007

Is Jasper burning?

Note to readers: if you are not a regular, this will make better sense if you read two earlier posts: "Writer, artist, shooter" and "My mentor"

This is about my friend, Bobby Lee, one of the founding members of the Black Panthers in Chicago and a community organizer in Houston.

Now. Remember with me the murder of Junior Byrd outside Jasper, Texas. The man was beaten by three drunk white men, tied up with chains and dragged to his death behind a pickup truck. His head was torn from his body. Gruesome. Senseless.

It was a reflex action for Bobby to rush to Jasper. The dead man was his cousin.

There were many heroes during the ensuing months as the town tried to keep from exploding into even more racial violence. Black heroes. White heroes. Many moments of insight and of bravery.

This is one of those moments.

Bobby was back home in Houston when he received a call. The younger black men of Jasper were chomping to set the forest on fire and, with help from prevailing winds, burn Jasper to the ground. Revenge.

As Bobby recounts that night, his first reaction surprises me still. "Go buy them beer. Lots of beer. I'm on my way." It was after hours, but Bobby gave directions to a merchant who would open up and sell them several cases of cold beer.

Beer? Wasn't that dangerous? Considering.

When Bobby arrived in Jasper a couple of hours later, the guys were really fueling their anger. It was a powder keg. Although he doesn't drink, Bobby made sure everybody had plenty of beer. He kept them talking and drinking. "I got them stinking drunk. Falling down drunk. So drunk they couldn't walk. And when I saw the sun come up, I knew it was over. We made it through the night. Nobody was going to burn nothing."

Jasper may still sift through the ashes of racism. But not of fire.

And that left the justice system free to work. Two of the three murderers were sentenced to death. The third got life, a decision that is controversial to this day. Not surprisingly, Bobby was part of the black community that opposed the death penalty for the third guy.

"There's been enough killing," Bobby said.

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