I remember some years ago travelling on an internal flight in the US when I was sat next to a very friendly middle aged couple. I asked them where they were from and they said Louisville, Kentucky. 'Ah,' I said, 'the town that gave us Muhammad Ali.'
They responded by saying that they liked to think that their town was known for better reasons than that. But I had to admit that I had never heard of a single other thing about the place in my life. We exchanged no more words on the journey - they clearly believing I had besmirched the good name of Louisville, I recognising very thinly veiled racism when I bump into it.
I suppose I was a bit shocked at the almost casual way they displayed their racism, and at their surprise that I didn't understand and share their point of view. It seemed like a residue of a past era where racism was respectable even amongst nice genteel middle aged, middle class folks, and where at the sharpest end of such sentiments it was possible to hang, lynch, castrate and mutilate without ever really fearing that the law would punish you for your actions.
That such things were still happening in the Southern states of the US (of which Kentucky was not quite one) as late as the early 1960s was a truly shocking indictment of the 'world's greatest democracy'. Eventually the racists went too far and started murdering young white civil rights activists from the North, and the government, the FBI and the media were all forced to take action.
Therefore it seemed such events were things of the past. So to have to read about the foul and unbelievably debased events in Jasper, Texas, recently is shocking in the extreme.
Jasper has been forced into the headlines by the way three white supremacist Nazis murdered a black man, James Byrd, by first savagely beating him, and then chaining him to the back of their truck and dragging him three miles along tarred road, tearing off his head and an arm in the process.
He was killed because of the colour of his skin and for no other reason.
Has nothing changed, then, and was the whole civil rights struggle for nought? Well, no, for out of the despair of the awful event it seems Jasper's whites have not closed ranks, condoned and excused the racists. Instead many of them have made their feelings of revulsion clear.
A prayer vigil in the town drew a crowd of both black and white people who held hands in grief and anguish. Even the father of one of the murderers has denounced him, and a local garage, which is white owned and with an all white workforce, ran a sign saying the town was mourning, hurting, crying and asking America to pray for them. An ex-girlfriend has explained how one of the killers was always using the 'N word' - the very use of the word suggesting someone beyond the pale.
This could not be more different to the walls of sullen silence that used to be built around such events. Perhaps out of the whole disgusting mess it is just a small sign that things are not simply as they used to be, and that the diehard racists are not the majority they like to think they are.
Times have changed in other, albeit less impressive ways. In the bad old days if the cops weren't actually involved in the lynching, then they certainly knew who was. Cousin Jethro, or whoever, was most unlikely to be charged and was certainly never going to be convicted by a jury of his redneck peers.
The cops now do not want to be seen as open allies of the racists. Instead after James Byrd was killed they tried to play down the motives behind the incident. So the first reaction of the authorities was to question whether the issue of race was central. Hence the county sheriff, after denying the existence of the Ku Klux Klan and other such groups on his patch, went on to say that the murderers were 'just some guys who are not our kind of people, who did some stupid stuff'. And the local justice of the peace described the murder as 'a random act of violence, just a stupid senseless crime'. This despite the fact that the three men arrested were covered in racist tattoos, that one had started a race riot when previously in prison, and that another had made a statement making it clear that race was the motive.
This would tend to suggest a police force which has all the talent of the shameful array of halfwits (and worse) who are currently being paraded in front of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry purporting to be upholders of law and order, and practitioners of detection! At least in defence of the Texan cops they have managed to arrest and charge the murderers. How a jury and judiciary will eventually deal with the Texan killers will be of no small significance.
Bob Dylan once wrote a song called 'The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll' in which he described how a rich Southern white murdered a black woman just because he felt like it. At each stage, as Dylan takes you through the story, his chorus ends with the words, 'Take the rag away from your face, now ain't the time for your tears.'
Only at the very last stage when the judge hands out a laughable sentence does Dylan beseech us to bury the rag deep in our face because now is the time for our tears. Hopefully the family of James Byrd will at least be spared that.