Strings Attached

Will Linden move on to become a music mecca or fall beneath the weight of a racist past?

Lee is the only one who agreed to share his perspective.

"Violence, period, is rampant in this part of the world," he says. "That's just part of the frontierism that we still live by. There's not an East Texas home that has two males living in it that doesn't have at least one firearm in it…that's a bold-assed statement, but I'm willing to stand by it."

Don Henley was the 2001 Wildflower Trails grand marshal.
Paul Ridenour
Don Henley was the 2001 Wildflower Trails grand marshal.
Bowden says he can bring stars to Linden.
Daniel Kramer
Bowden says he can bring stars to Linden.

Outside the courthouse, a Linden volunteer firefighter sits above the dunking booth while a throng of eager kids waits to whip balls at the target. It's the town's Wildflower Trails festival, a weekend of local music, arts and crafts, and, of course, down-home food.

A handful of volunteers are in the MCT Theater, preparing for the evening's T. Graham Brown concert. Brown is this year's Wildflower Trails grand marshal, a position held in the past by Henley, Kenny Rogers and Jackson Browne.

Bowden, making the rounds on the square, says he hopes to add Ronstadt and Jimmy Buffett to the heralded list of grand marshals. He doesn't believe they or anyone else should be afraid of the recent attention stirred up by the Johnson case, which he shrugs off as media hype.

"They were looking for another Jasper," he says, referring to the notorious 1998 dragging death of a black man by white assailants. "As hard as they tried to make it into that, it wasn't that."

The Johnson case has receded somewhat in the public consciousness, at least until the defendants come to trial. In its place is a debate over another part of the town's revival plans, which is to start attracting tourists to look at its historic buildings. Of course, to do so will entail spending some money on restoration.

The Cass County Conservancy is competing for a $3.7 million Texas Historical Commission grant to restore the building to its 1934 configuration. In order to qualify, the county must demolish a 3,100-square-foot wing added in 1980. Although the conservancy has pledged to raise $550,000 in cash and in-kind costs to cover the price of the restoration, some county officials and residents believe there are hidden costs that will raise their taxes in the future.

Henley, who owns three buildings on the courthouse square, has offered the county the use of those properties in the event that the courthouse is restored. He also offered $150,000 toward the cost of restoration, according to the Cass County Sun.

Wright, of the Linden Economic Development Corporation, says the restoration and Music City Texas efforts would work hand in hand. He wants to create the rock hall of fame and a Cass County Musicians Museum. The cities of Marshall and Jefferson would establish blues and jazz museums and venues.

The towns would not only draw on the past but would showcase what Wright says is a continuation of these towns' musical traditions.

As he says, "They're grooming a whole new crop of Don Henleys here."

They should stay in jail until they die, Johnson says of the four men who left him in the anthill that night.

It's a statement that runs counter to what everyone else says about Johnson -- how meek and harmless he is.

He's lying in a Texarkana nursing-home bed, his hair braided into tight cornrows, courtesy of one of the nurses. He's lost weight since the attack, and his hospital gown only accentuates his gaunt body. Since the beating, Johnson soils himself and coughs up his words through a phlegmy string of nearly unintelligible grunts.

Johnson says he can't remember what happened that night, which is probably for the best. According to his medical report in the Cass County Courthouse, the ants ravaged his body.

He passes the time by watching TV and listening to hip-hop and R&B CDs on a portable stereo he keeps on the nightstand. He also leafs through photo albums with pictures that include the smiling nursing staff.

His cousin Lue Wilson, a Vietnam veteran and retired Citgo Mining crush operator, is convinced that the men who harmed his cousin will get off lightly.

"Doin' that to Billy Ray was like takin' a baby out of a crib and stompin' him," Wilson says.

Wilson has kept every newspaper clipping and recorded every television news segment relating to the case. He and Johnson's brother, Curtis Stevenson, conducted their own investigation from the beginning. Wilson accuses the Linden cops of "poor-ass policing," saying he and Stevenson did their work for them. Wilson accuses Police Chief Alton McWaters and other authorities of wanting to sweep the whole thing under the rug.

Chief McWaters freely admits that his four-person police department -- which includes a black officer -- welcomes outside help, whether from civilians or other authorities. The department's budget can't cover overtime, and there are times when the officer on duty has to close the office, go home and sit on call.

"Curtis, he helped me quite a bit," McWaters says. "We try to run seven days a week, 24 hours a day, but [we] can't hardly do it."

McWaters, 51, is a short, round man who raises Thoroughbred horses and works out of a faux-wood-paneled office decorated with mounted buck heads and an ink portrait of John Wayne. Before he became chief in 1989, he worked in other cities, including Vidor, the home of a Klan chapter called the Knights of the White Kamellia.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Houston Concert Tickets