It took a murder to get me off my butt.

As a veteran journalist, trained to be observant and objective, the decision to become an activist – to take a stand in a visible way – was a long time coming.

In the summer of 1998, while living aboard my sailboat Ranger, off Key West, I noticed a small news article in the newspaper. A black man had been dragged to death in Jasper, Texas by white men. The news struck me like thunder. What could I do? After watching an episode of Oprah’s Angels, ordinary citizens who become “angels” helping others, I flew to Jasper to see what I could do. I knew no one. But I had a crazy idea that the city needed healing after this horrendous racist crime.

Borrowing a computer and printer from an office-supply store, I distributed a one-page proposal entitled, If I Had a Hammer. It suggested that by building something, or repairing something, together, black and white Jasper could meet, set common goals and bridge a racial divide that was hundreds of years old. One proposal in particular had merit, in my view: building a new community swimming pool, to replace the city pool filled in with dirt in the 1960s to prevent integration.

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Jasper was inundated with outside “experts” and opinions, and my little list was lost in a glare of bad publicity. But before I left town I learned of, and called, the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. I said I wanted to write a book on how communities deal with hate crimes, but I needed examples beyond Jasper. In exchange for SPLC’s data, I would offer, pro bono, three months of writing and editing. SPLC agreed, and I sailed Ranger across the Gulf of Mexico and 300 miles up the slow, winding Alabama River. I feared, at times, like I was sailing into Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

At the city’s muddy marina, celebrating my arrival at the bar, I let slip my mission. The next morning, the marina owner came to the boat waving a newspaper.

“I’ve got some good news for ya'” he drawled. “There’s been a cross burning.”

I volunteered three months at SPLC, then became a paid staffer. Among my projects: A Webby-award winning Web site,; a community guide, Ten Ways to Fight Hate; an immigration project, Injustice on our Plates; and my first film, Faces in the Water. To read more, click on SPLC in the main menu, and choose from the drop-down menu.