By Blair Dedrick Ortmann/The Beaumont Enterprise
A decade ago, the town of Jasper became synonymous with hate and racism as news media across the nation reported the tragic story of James Byrd Jr.'s dragging death. Today, news organizations give Jasper air-time and print space once again. This time around, residents hope Michael Sarver's bid to become the next "American Idol" can somehow show the nation that Jasper is as humble and friendly as Sarver shows himself to be on television.
"This is Jasper, Texas, and for 10 years there has been a cloud over our city ..." Sarver said during a brief visit home three weeks ago. "This is more than about Michael Sarver. It's about Jasper, Texas, and a city that has more to give the world than hate."
In 1998, Byrd was dragged to death, chained to the back of a pickup by three white men after they offered him a ride home one late night in June.
Sarver, who spent the last two weeks watching from the sidelines, will be singing tonight for the first time since earning a spot in the Top 13. Pastor Gary Marshall of Harvest Church, where Sarver serves as a music minister, believes Sarver is keeping Jasper - and the town's reputation - in mind while he's singing to the nation.
"I do think that's his heart, not just a quote," Marshall said. "He does have multi-cultural friends, and I believe it's from his heart. I think that God gave us all a platform."
Harvest Church is Jasper's only interracial church, Marshall said, adding that it purposefully was that way.
"When (my wife and I) came, it was always with the idea of an interracial church," Marshall said. "We pray that this is fulfillment of our prayers, Michael being able to say these things on national television. We're just like any other town."
James Byrd Jr.'s mother, Stella Byrd, said she hopes that Sarver's pride in his hometown and church background will make a positive change in Jasper's reputation.
"If you say you're from Jasper, they give you a cold shoulder," she said of those not from the city of about 8,000.
"Some things have changed. Where my son's buried, there used to be a fence separating the black folks and the white folks. They took the fence back down," Stella Byrd said of her hometown. "There's a park named after my son, and all colors play there.
"I don't know what (Sarver) will do. I hope it makes a difference," she said. "I wish (Sarver) all the luck in the world."
Darci Holloway, a stylist at Capelli Salon and Day Spa in south Jasper, has experienced some of those cold shoulders Stella Byrd described.
A few years ago, in New York City, she told someone she was from Jasper.
"The whole room just went silent," Holloway said.
Many from Jasper are glad Sarver is putting the town in the news on a positive note.
Amber Stroman, administrative assistant for the Jasper-Lake Sam Rayburn Area Chamber of Commerce, said Jasper has been misrepresented in the past.
"(Byrd's death) happened almost 11 years ago, but Jasper didn't do it. The guys who did, not all of them were even from Jasper," she said. "I think that Michael's being out there as something positive from Jasper, it says that we're not all a bunch of racists. Because we're not."
Instead of shocked silence or people wondering why the town's name rings a bell, Stroman hopes that people will now say, "Oh, Jasper, isn't that where Michael Sarver's from?"
And, although she sympathizes with those who have kept quiet about being from Jasper, Stroman doesn't think silence is helping the town.
"I think maybe the more people who get out there and say, 'We're from Jasper,' the more we'll get past that," Stroman said.
Pastor Marshall first came to Jasper after the final trial for Byrd's killers to conduct a healing service for the town's pastors.
Soon afterwards, he founded Harvest Church, whose members are about 65 percent white, 30 percent black and 5 percent Hispanic, Marshall estimated.
"We do try our best to be mindful of it, with the pictures on the walls, the songs that we sing. We're not leaning to one culture more than another," he said. "I think people pick up real quick whether you're an act or sincere."
In 2003, Ted Koppel came to town to conduct a town-hall meeting about racism.
Marshall invited Koppel and his camera crews to visit the church before the town hall.
"Their eyes about bugged out, there were black people and white people worshipping together," Marshall said. "I just picked up their microphone and invited them to interview anyone in the place. The next night, at the meeting, they never said nothing."
He added that he thinks it's unique that Sarver is telling the world about racial harmony in Jasper when Koppel did not.
Lindsey Roberts, a teller at First Bank and Trust East Texas where Sarver's sister-in-law, Kayli Smith, also works, is glad Sarver is helping to change her town's reputation.
"We need something that will bring the whole community back together and this is really helping," she said of his bid for the top spot on "Idol."
And, if the signs along both sides of Jasper's main thoroughfare are any indication, support for Sarver is doing just that.
Bank branch manager Ellen Hopkins said the bank was one of the first in town to start putting up signs.
"Every time I drive through town now, there are more signs. It's spreading around town," she said, laughing.
First Bank and Trust tellers are also selling buttons with Sarver's picture to people for $5. The money goes to help Tiffany Sarver with expenses, such as flying out to see her husband in Los Angeles, Hopkins said.
The buttons, like the signs, are spreading around town.
One made its way into Jimmy Aud and Son Furniture Gallery, which also sports a Sarver sign out front.
"If you don't have your town to support you, who else do you have?" receptionist Jami Soileau asked. "Even if he doesn't go any farther, he's top 12. That's a big accomplishment. He's already won, really."
Salesman Buddy Johnson said he thinks Sarver already is in line for some type of recording contract, adding he could go farther on the show - but only if Jasper residents keep up their support.
"He'll go as far as Jasper will take him, because he's not the best male singer there," he said. "But, as long as we keep voting for him, he'll be OK."
According to a message posted on The Enterprise's Idol Chatter blog at the beginning of the month, the Byrd family will be part of the city standing behind Sarver.
"I am sending you this message to congratulate you on behalf of the Byrd family in Jasper, Texas, for your outstanding performances on American Idol," wrote Tenika Boatner Brooks, Byrd's niece, who could not be reached by phone.
"You will continue to be in our prayers and may your light forever shine through the dark clouds that have hung around our city since the tragic death of my uncle."
Monday, March 9, 2009
By Blair Dedrick Ortmann/The Beaumont Enterprise