Klan ringed by troopers, blacks hurl epithets in Jasper, Texas Feared violence limited to verbal abuse at scene of man's dragging death

June 28, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

JASPER, Texas -- Despite fears of violence, a showdown between white supremacists and black militants remained relatively peaceful here yesterday on Jasper's courthouse square, leaving residents feeling relieved.

Name-calling and threats were as bad as it got on a sweltering day in this East Texas town where a 49-year-old black man, James Byrd Jr., was dragged to death behind a pickup truck three weeks ago.

"It's wrong for either of them to be here," Joyce Edmond, a black woman, said of the two groups. She said the groups were just using the tragedy to get attention for themselves.

Ringed by state troopers wearing face shields and bullet-proof vests, about 25 robed and hooded Ku Klux Klan members from Waco and Vidor, Texas, gave speeches peppered with racial slurs. The Klansmen had said beforehand that they were coming to Jasper to disavow any connection with the three men charged in Byrd's killing.

For more than two hours, about 200 law enforcement officers kept the Klansmen separated from about 50 members of the Black Muslims of Houston and New Black Panthers of Dallas.

The militants had arrived in town with trunkloads of guns, which some carried through the streets. It is legal in Texas to carry a loaded weapon in public, but police did not allow any guns on courthouse grounds.

A dozen militants twice tried to break through police barricades. Khalid Muhammad, a former spokesman for the Nation of Islam, tried to get onlookers -- members of the media easily outnumbered the 200 spectators -- to join in their attempts to overcome police and get at the Klan members.

No one was hurt, but two men, one white and one black, were arrested for disorderly conduct.

Onlookers at times broke out laughing, as when the Klan's taped country music kept going off, and when one of the Black Muslims chased a carload of departing Klansmen on foot.

The Klansmen said they were there to protect whites from the New Black Panthers and Black Muslims. The militants said they were there to protect blacks from the Klan.

Klan speakers warned of black conspiracies, dwindling white political influence, and cover-ups by the media.

A small group of whites in the crowd, most from outside Jasper, cheered the Klan's speeches, but was drowned out by the jeers of others, white and black.

Byrd's family, as it has all through this ordeal, issued an appeal for peace.

Pub Date: 6/28/98

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