By: Lani Silver
When two heroic journalists retire, there should be a parade, with heartfelt confetti of awe and gratitude, but too often there is nothing. We really should all make a big deal out of decades of public service and in-depth reporting, especially if you are the editor of the town newspaper in Jasper, Texas, where one more word is added to the mix: courage.
Meet Willis Webb who was until recently the editor and publisher of the Jasper Newsboy, a Hearst publication. Webb and his wife Julie Webb, a contributing editor and reporter, took a struggling paper and made it a world-class country paper, smack in the middle of a town that, nine years ago, experienced the one of the worst hate crimes this country has seen in a hundred years.
You may not know the names Willis and Julie Webb, but you will know the story of James Byrd Jr., who was walking down Martin Luther King Boulevard, almost a decade ago, when he was picked up by three white supremacists who took him to a remote rural area where they beat him up and chained his feet to their truck and dragged him three miles to his death.
This horrific crime remains in your mind today largely because of the tireless work of these courageous and meticulous journalists.
Journalists are killed everyday around the world and in Jasper and elsewhere; great journalists are not fully appreciated. But rest assured, the buck stops in Jasper County with the Webbs. Are people happy with them? Not really. Do the Webbs care? Not really. They have left a legacy of courage and fearless honesty. Many in this hardscrabble town didn’t want to hear another word about the crime and it’s aftermath, but they did not have a choice.
Willis has been an editor, publisher and journalist in Texas for five decades and Julie was a junior high teacher but during the last of the Byrd trials decided to make a journalistic contribution, and did she ever. Both have written ferociously about the case ever since the crime occurred. They didn’t write one or two articles, but hundreds. Willis served at the Newsboy for nearly l6 years, and recently served a term as thepPresident of the Texas Press Association.
After a brutal hate-crime, some editors and reporters do what’s been done through the ages – they back off. Too many people woefully and inadequately report the story. They might rationalize any back page placement by saying they had to bow to relentless community pressure to drop the topic, or say that “we’re just a small Southern town, after all.?
After big stories like this quiet down, many journalists would put down their pencils, but not the Webbs. The story stays alive to this day, locally and nationally, because of the Webbs and a few other brave folks.
A handful of angels kept justice alive in this poor East Texas town. In addition to the Webbs, there’s Jasper’s former sheriff, Billy Rowles and his assistant, the former captain, James Carter, who did a remarkable job, along with the former district attorney, Guy James Gray. Rowles and Gray cracked the case, and made Texas history, because it was the first time in the Texas history where white men received the death penalty for murdering a black man. Two of the three received the death penalty and the third got life imprisonment.
Then there’s Stella Byrd herself, James’s mom, who called for racial reconciliation and single-handedly, many believe, kept Jasper, and perhaps some other parts of the United States, from exploding when she put racial healing before despair and rioting.
What is it, exactly did the Webbs do, to deserve being named by the Texas Press Association two of the six ?most courageous editors in Texas?? Among other things, they served as a clearinghouse or repository for other newspapers and journalists, who relied on them for emerging details of the crime. They were just fearless. They called everyone on the carpet that needed to be there. They could be relied upon to always call things the way they saw them.
I asked Mr. Webb why they continued to cover the Byrd story so vigorously. This is what he said: ?1) It was our job; 2) It was our duty; and 3) We owed it to the Byrd family and the Jasper community to not only tell the entire story from the local point of view but to do everything in our power to promote and facilitate healing and to try to see that the rest of the world saw Jasper as we knew it to be.?
The Webbs did other things well too. They helped defeat an ineffectual district attorney, through an ongoing series of articles, detailing his lack of action during his term in office. They regularly exposed local governmental shenanigans and gave the power-elite a run for their money. Ah, journalism. Just how I like it.