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In the shadow of James Byrd’s murder, city leaders can’t agree how to move this East Texas town forward

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In the shadow of James Byrd’s murder, city leaders can’t agree how to move this East Texas town forward

Sep 28, 2023 | 6:00 am ET
By Pooja Salhotra
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In the shadow of James Byrd’s murder, city leaders can’t agree how to move this East Texas town forward
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Mayor Anderson Land reviews notes before a city council meeting at City Hall on June 12, 2023 in Jasper. (Mark Felix for The Texas Tribune)

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JASPER — On a Monday evening in June, Anderson Land called the Jasper City Council meeting to order with a prayer and a reminder that would soon become a familiar refrain: “Council meetings will be conducted professionally and orderly,” Land said, as if he could manifest good conduct. “There will be no outbursts from council members or audience members.”

The guidance from 69-year-old Land went unheeded over the following 35 minutes as the council members repeatedly interrupted one another and failed to follow meeting rules. Land, who was elected mayor of the 7,400 person East Texas town in May, grew increasingly frustrated and short-tempered. He told the five-member council they can only speak when called upon. At times, he cut council members off mid-sentence.

From the audience, local pastor and longtime Jasper resident Rodney Norsworthy likened the meeting to a “circus” and vowed to stop attending them.

“I’m not going back for that foolishness,” he said.

Jasper, Texas: (Far L- Far R) Ronald Sample argues with David Shultz during a city council meeting on June 12, 2023 in Jasper, Texas. Mark Felix/The Texas Tribune
Ronald Sample argues with David Shultz during a city council meeting on June 12, 2023 in Jasper. Credit: Mark Felix for The Texas Tribune

Mamie Horn Aplon, daughter of Jasper’s first Black mayor, R.C. Horn, shook her head in disbelief.

“This is embarrassing,” she said.

Land, a no-nonsense real estate agent who grew up in Jasper, ran his mayoral campaign on the promise of reducing customers’ utility rates, increasing transparency in local government and helping bring jobs to town. His message resonated with voters, and he defeated incumbent Randy Sayers by 30 percentage points in a low-turnout election.

[Watch: 25 years after James Byrd Jr. was killed for being Black, his loved ones question how much has changed in Texas]

Now, four months into his term, Land faces significant hostility from council members who hold opposing perspectives about how to spend the city’s limited budget. Land wants to invest in infrastructure improvements and rebates on customers’ utility bills. Others want to bring entertainment options to young people. They say Land has put a damper on those plans.

“If you want to build a park, Land is the guy who says we don’t need it,” said 37-year-old Rashad Lewis, an at-large council member who is often at odds with Land. “If you want to build a splash pad, he’s the guy who says we don’t want to do it.”

Land has built a reputation for presiding over unproductive meetings that feature frequent bickering. It’s an unfortunate reality for a town still trying to rebrand itself after a gruesome murder 25 years ago tainted its image and propelled Jasper to unwanted notoriety.

Jasper, Texas: An overhead view of Huff Creek Road and the bridge where James Byrd Jr. was beaten and chained May 29, 2023 in Jasper, Texas. Mark Felix/The Texas Tribune
An overhead view of Huff Creek Road and the bridge where James Byrd Jr. was chained and dragged 25 years ago in Jasper. Credit: Mark Felix for The Texas Tribune

In 1998, James Byrd Jr., a 49-year-old Black man, was murdered at the hands of three white men, two of whom were self-proclaimed white supremacists. Byrd was chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged for nearly three miles down an isolated, wooded road just outside Jasper. The incident sparked national outrage and led to the passage of state and federal hate crime laws.

R.C. Horn had come to office with plans to spur economic development, according to those who lived in Jasper at the time. But those goals were largely overshadowed by Byrd’s murder. Horn focused his two terms on maintaining order as members of the Ku Klux Klan and Black Panther Party sought to disrupt the peace and invoke fear.

As Byrd’s killing has faded into the background, a different sort of division and chaos has prevented Land — the town’s second African American mayor — from helping the town move forward.

***

Land was born in Jasper in 1954 and left town after he graduated from high school. He joined the U.S. Navy, served in Vietnam, and then obtained a bachelor's degree in business administration. A stint in the oil and gas industry in Houston was cut short after Land lost his job during an economic downturn. He moved to Connecticut, where he owned and operated a commercial cleaning business.

It wasn’t until 2014 that Land returned to his hometown for a family reunion. He was saddened by what he saw: a desolate town with few jobs or growth prospects.

“It wasn’t the same Jasper I grew up in,” said Land, who wears thick, black-rimmed glasses and walks heavily. “Jasper used to be thriving.”

Business, including drug stores and the local movie theater, had shuttered, as had Dickerson Memorial Hospital. Downtown was far emptier than Land remembered it.

Jasper, Texas: Mayor Anderson Land poses for a portrait in at City Hall on June 12, 2023 in Jasper, Texas. Mark Felix/The Texas Tribune
Mayor Anderson Land poses for a portrait at City Hall in Jasper. Credit: Mark Felix for The Texas Tribune

Between 2000 and 2020, Jasper’s population dropped by 17%, according to census data. That decline was spurred by white flight — the town experienced a 31% drop in the white population and a corresponding rise in the Black population.

The demographic shift corresponded to rising racial animosity. While Black residents were slowly gaining political power in a part of the state known for its racist history, there was unrest — often linked to Byrd’s death. In 2004, Byrd’s gravesite was desecrated. A few years later, a website popped up where a small bag of dirt from Byrd’s gravesite was posted for sale, along with a piece of the road where the murder occurred. Byrd’s relatives were furious.

Then, In 2012, the town’s first Black police chief, Rodney Pearson, was fired by a majority white city council, who said Pearson was not qualified to hold the job. His firing resulted in a federal discrimination lawsuit that the city ultimately settled for $831,000.

Land returned to Jasper in 2017 with plans to retire. Instead, he took up work as a real estate agent and ran unopposed for city council for the majority Black District 1.

“I saw a need for improvement,” Land said. “When I came back, it was like, what happened to this town?”

As a council member, Land fought to improve the quality of life for his constituents, often voting against his fellow council members to stay true to his conscience. He voted against an expensive broadband project, for example, and he advocated to cut utility rates. When his proposal was rejected, he took matters into his own hands. He wrote a petition to amend the city’s charter and gathered residents’ signatures to put the issue on the May 2022 ballot. Residents overwhelmingly voted in favor of the charter amendment, which limited the rate the city could charge for power to no more than 10% above the city's cost.

Now, Land is the second African American mayor, a distinction that elicited excitement among many Black residents who were hopeful Land’s leadership could help the town improve race relations — still marred by Byrd’s murder. But Land has downplayed that title and instead focused on getting things done for everyone.

“I don’t put a lot of emphasis on race,” Land said. “I think that creates division, and I’m not about creating division. I’m about bringing this town together.”

Jasper, Texas: Shops in downtown Jasper May 29, 2023 in Jasper.
Shops in downtown Jasper on May 29, 2023. Credit: Mark Felix for The Texas Tribune

A rare moment of unity transpired during the June council meeting when Land issued a proclamation marking June 7 as James Byrd Jr. Day. But the moment passed with little fanfare, as Land was quick to move on to the next order of business.

Mamie Horn Aplon remarked that the proclamation was not given sufficient acknowledgement or attention. Horn was asked by the Byrd family to accept the proclamation on the family’s behalf. But she was never called up to receive it.

“There’s still this black cloud over Jasper, and we’re trying to heal,” Horn said.

Land declined to comment about why he didn’t invite Horn to accept the proclamation leaving residents to wonder whether he forgot or was trying to propel the town past its painful history.

Jasper, Texas: Mamie Horn, daughter of the first black  mayor R.C. Horn, poses for a portrait June 12, 2023 in Jasper, Texas. Mark Felix/The Texas Tribune
Mamie Horn Aplon, daughter of the first black mayor R.C. Horn, poses for a portrait in Jasper. Credit: Mark Felix for The Texas Tribune

During an earlier June interview with the Tribune, Land said Jasper needs to move past the murder.

“In order for Jasper to grow, we need to move on,” he said.

***

For many of the town’s Black residents, the ongoing tensions between the mayor and the city council is a missed opportunity, especially given the makeup of the council, which is majority Black.

It’s unclear if Land will be able to find common ground with his council, especially the younger Lewis.

In July, Land filed a complaint with the Jasper County District Attorney’s office against Lewis, who allegedly misrepresented himself as the town’s mayor on social media. Lewis said he in fact called himself mayor pro tem, a position he was elected to occupy.

Around that same time, a resident led an unsuccessful effort to recall two council members whom she accused of incompetence and malfeasance in office.

“People have their own ideas about how things should go and they feel like they’re in charge,” Land said. “If you want to be in charge, you should have run for mayor.”

Jasper, Texas: The Jasper Courthouse May 29, 2023 in Jasper, Texas. Mark Felix/The Texas Tribune
The Jasper courthouse on May 29, 2023. Credit: Mark Felix for The Texas Tribune

Despite the hostility, Land scored a rare political victory in July, passing a measure to use $1 million to reduce electric rates for the months of August and February, the hottest and coldest months of the year. The money comes from an industrial wholesale project with Sam Rayburn Municipal Power Agency, which provides power to the city of Jasper.

The city has received more than $45 million in distributions from the company over the past decade and many of the disagreements on the council stem from how that money should be spent: on entertainment or on further reducing electric rates.

“We don’t have anything family-friendly to do in town,” Lewis said. “When people Google Jasper, there’s so much negativity online, and it makes it hard for anybody who wants to bring their business here. When they look at us we look like we’re dysfunctional.”

Land has refused to place Lewis’ proposal to use hotel occupancy funds for a food truck event this fall on the council’s agenda.

“I’m not a spend, spend, spend type mayor,” Land said. “And I’m not going to have a spend, spend, spend type government.”

In a recent column, Land took issue with Lewis promoting a September food truck event as “presented by” the City of Jasper.

“This was not a city-sponsored event,” Land wrote. “If any council member, city official, or city employee wants to present an event they will go through the proper channels, complete the proper paperwork, pay the appropriate fees, and get the proper permits just like anyone else.”

In an effort to move forward, Land is hopeful that he’ll find ways to align with his fellow council members. He said he’s asked the city attorney to schedule meetings with him and each of the council members so he can better understand the source of their hostility.

“Playtime is over,” Land said. “I’m not going to allow any more frivolous spending.”

Jasper, Texas: A flower grows next to Huff Creek Road May 29, 2023 in Jasper, Texas.
A flower grows next to Huff Creek Road on May 29, 2023 in Jasper. Credit: Mark Felix for The Texas Tribune

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