Fifty years ago this month, the world watched as nine Black students braved a jeering white mob as they walked into the segregated Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in the pursuit of an equal education.
The images from that September day in 1957 show the ugly reality of American racism. Elizabeth Eckford had arrived alone on the first day of school, and was turned away by the Arkansas National Guard on orders of Democratic Gov. Orval Faubus. The crowd of whites that surrounded her as she later walked to a bus stop looked ready to lynch her. All of the nine would face similar harassment.
Coming after the 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education Supreme Court decision that outlawed legal segregation, Little Rock showed the reality of racism in the U.S.–that equality before the law mattered little in the Jim Crow South, and that racism would have to be fought every step of the way to overcome it.
Today, we’re told that America has moved beyond its ugly past–that nooses, “separate but equal” and “Jim Crow justice” are relics of a bygone era. But 50 years after Little Rock, the case of the Jena 6 is proving that racism is alive and well.
The Jena 6 are six high school students facing decades in prison for their alleged part in a school fight–which itself followed a series of racist incidents endured by the small minority of African Americans in this Louisiana town of less than 3,000 people.
The case has many of the hallmarks of the Jim Crow past–a vindictive white prosecutor, all-white juries, blatant double standards in punishment.
And, of course, the nooses–hung from a tree in the courtyard of Jena’s high school to intimidate Black students who dared to expect equal treatment.
The story of the Jena 6 has spread around the country and the world, causing disbelief–and anger. On September 20, that anger found an outlet–with tens of thousands of people mobilizing around the country to stand up for the Jena 6.
Hundreds rallied on college campuses in Nashville, Houston, Atlanta, Cleveland, Toledo, Muncie, Ind., Berkeley, Calif., and beyond. In Allentown, Pa., middle school students marched. In Chicago, students from the all-male Hales Franciscan High School on the South Side organized an out-of-uniform day so they could wear black to show support for the Jena 6. Hundreds more marched in communities in Detroit, Philadelphia and elsewhere.
And then there was Jena itself. Tens of thousands of people descended on the tiny town. From early in the morning, protesters came pouring down the sloping road into Jena. They rallied in the town park and walked to the courthouse–and to Jena High School to witness the spot where the “whites only” tree once stood. The tree has since been removed–although the school’s burned-out auditorium, set on fire by an unknown arsonist last November, remains.
Ashleigh Randle, a student at the University of Michigan, drove 22 hours with a group of fellow students to stand in the courtyard. “We wanted to come and stand up for what is right, because we’re tired of what’s been going on, the racial injustice,” she said.
“People act like racism is in the past, but it’s not. It’s subtle or it’s blunt, but it’s out there. We want people to know that we’re tired of settling for less. I say look around. How can you look at Hurricane Katrina and say racism doesn’t exist?”
Ashleigh’s fellow student, Shanika Steen, pointed to the spot where the tree once stood. “The noose that was hung on the tree. And another one at the University of Maryland a couple of days ago. You can’t look at these things and say, ‘It’s not racism, it’s just something that happened.’”
Shavette Wayne Jones traveled to Jena from St. Louis with a group of about 60 people. “I came because I have two sons of my own,” she said. “I have a 2-year-old and a 9-year-old. My mother and I came together. This could very well be one of my children.”
Among everyone in the streets of Jena that day, there was a determination to take a stand–if the racism of the Jim Crow days had returned, they would stand up against it, just like the civil rights marchers of 50 years ago. The sign Shavette held summarized the mood: “Jena, La., today. Anytown, USA, tomorrow. Not on our watch!”
The double standards that run through the case of the Jena 6 are unmistakable.
The schoolyard assault that the six Black students are charged with was preceded by a series of racist incidents, beginning when three white students hung nooses from a tree in the courtyard of Jena High School. The nooses appeared the day after some Black students asked for and received permission from an assistant principal to sit under the tree, traditionally “reserved” for whites only.
Dismissed as a “prank” by LaSalle Parish Schools Superintendent Roy Breithaupt, the white students who hung the nooses received in-school suspensions.
But to Jena’s Black residents, the incident was a clear threat. “It meant the KKK, it meant ‘niggers, we’re going to kill you, we’re going to hang you ’til you die,’” Caseptla Bailey, whose son is also among the six, later told Britain’s Observer.
When Black students attempted to address the school board about the noose incident, they were turned away–with the board apparently deciding that it had dealt with the issue.
After Black students staged a sit-in under the tree in response to the nooses, LaSalle Parish County District Attorney Reed Walters was called in to address a school assembly. According to Black students, Walters said to stop “fussing” over an “innocent prank”–and then, looking specifically at them, said: “See this pen? I can end your lives with the stroke of a pen.”
In late November, Robert Bailey, a Black student, was beaten up at a party attended by mostly whites. According to the Louisiana Public Defenders’ Association, police initially refused to let Bailey make a complaint against his attacker and warned Black students at the party to get “get their Black asses out of this part of town.”
A few nights later, Bailey and two others were threatened by a white student with a sawed-off shotgun at the town’s “Gotta Go” convenience store. The three wrestled the gun away and fled, but instead of police arresting the white student who pulled the gun, Bailey was initially arrested and charged with second-degree robbery, theft of a firearm and disturbing the peace.
At school the following week, a white student, Justin Barker, allegedly taunted Bailey. After lunch, Barker was knocked down, punched and kicked by a group of Black students, said to include Bailey, Theo Shaw, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis, Mychal Bell and another unidentified minor. Barker was taken to the hospital, though he was well enough to attend a party that night.
As Walters promised, there was instant retaliation for the six Black students. They were immediately expelled, and slapped with charges of attempted second-degree murder–punishable by 30 years in prison. Several of the Jena 6 remained in jail for months because their families couldn’t afford bail, which ranged from $70,000 for Purvis to $138,000 for Bailey.
The injustice didn’t end there. Mychal Bell was the first to come to trial. In June, on the morning his trial began, the charges against him were reduced to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy. The battery charge, however, was based on the idea that Bell used a “deadly weapon” during the assault–according to Walters, Bell’s gym shoe.
Bell was eventually found guilty by an all-white jury–which included two people who were allegedly friendly with the Walters and one who was a friend of the victim’s father. Not only was the jury all-white, but the jury pool itself didn’t contain a single African American.
According to the Jena 6 families, Bell’s court-appointed defense attorney had been trying to cut a plea deal with the DA behind the scenes. The attorney didn’t call a single witness in Mychal’s defense or present any evidence on his behalf.
The charges against Jones, Shaw and Bailey have been reduced to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy. Purvis has yet to be arraigned in the case and is the only remaining Jena Six member still charged with attempted second-degree murder.
Bell was originally scheduled to be sentenced on September 20, facing as much as 22 years in prison. But with the increased media attention and wave of activism around the case, new lawyers were able to overturn Mychal’s conviction. The trial judge first threw out the conspiracy charge, and, later, Bell’s battery conviction was overturned when an appeals court judge ruled that he should not have been tried as an adult.
The reversal of Mychal’s conviction, however, doesn’t affect the four other Jena 6 members charged as adults–because they were 17 at the time of the alleged crime and, under Louisiana law, are no longer considered juveniles.
Unequal “justice” is nothing new in Jena. Michael Kirkland, who runs a barbeque stand outside the Christian Saints Baptist Church on the road into town, has lived in Jena for the past 10 years, “It’s a rough town,” said Kirkland. “It’s a good town, but it’s rough. It’s very segregated.”
Kirkland rejects the idea that racism is a thing of the past in Jena. “It happens all the time,” he says.
When the superintendent suggested that the hanging of the nooses was a “prank,” Kirkland said, “It shocked the Black community. It didn’t shock the white community because that was what they wanted him to do. He’s their puppet on a string.”
As for the incident with the shotgun, Kirkland says, “It was outrageous. This same guy who pulled the gun, he got away easy. But they charged the boy who took the gun from him with theft.”
Gregory Gibbs, who was raised in Jena and attended Jena High, now lives in Alexandria. He speaks today of “getting through” and “getting out.” Heywood Williams, who attended Jena High, too, and still lives in Jena, has the same feelings about the school.
According to Gibbs and Williams, it’s not surprising that racial tensions would flare up at the high school, since kids in Jena attend separate, racially segregated elementary schools. White children, the men say, go to Nebo Elementary, while Black kids attend a separate school.
Though the “whites only” tree at Jena High may be gone, there’s still the “Nebo bench,” the men say, where only students from Nebo–in other words, all whites–traditionally sit.
Blacks who have tried speaking out against racism in the past in Jena have found themselves retaliated against, Gibbs says. “If you get too outspoken here,” he says, “you might show up at work in the morning and find you don’t have a job. So that’s what took it so long to come out.”
Now, the conditions that Gibbs and others have endured are known around the world, thanks to the outrage of people who heard about the story–often on the Internet or from a Black radio station–and forced it into the mainstream media.
Even George W. Bush was forced to weigh in. Asked about the planned protest at a news conference, he said the “events in Louisiana have saddened me,” and advised whoever is elected next year to “reach out to the African American community.” In other words, don’t look for any justice from Bush’s Justice Department.
Meanwhile, Louisiana’s Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco had declared that the case was a “local matter,” and she doesn’t have the jurisdiction to intervene.
But some Democrats are finding themselves on the hot seat for their failure to speak out. Earlier in the week, at a meeting in South Carolina, Jesse Jackson took Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama to task for failing to respond to Jena. “Jena is a defining moment, just like Selma was a defining moment,” said Jackson.
The emotions stirred by the injustice in Jena were clear on September 20, the date that Mychal Bell had been scheduled to be sentenced, when tens of thousands of people made the trip to Jena–and demand that the charges against Mychal and the rest of the Jena 6 be dropped.
When the charges against Mychal Bell were overturned earlier this month, Jena officials must have breathed a sigh of relief–figuring that the September 20 demonstration wouldn’t draw a big turnout.
They were wrong. At least 50,000 people traveled to the out-of-the-way town, one of the largest civil rights demonstrations in 40 years.
The night before the protest, in Alexandria, La., a larger town 45 minutes south of Jena, every hotel and motel for miles around was sold out, filled with protesters preparing for the next day.
The next morning, buses and cars began arriving in Jena as early as 4:30 a.m. By 7:30 a.m., the two-lane road into town was backed up for at least a mile or more. Every available parking space for miles out of town was taken on both sides of the road.
Hundreds of people–nearly all dressed in black shirts in solidarity–began the long walk into town as more cars and buses continued on the road. The arrival of a contingent of hundreds of Black motorcycle riders–organized through Black clubs across the country–brought cheers and awe.
Days earlier, when it became clear that there would be no stopping the protest, state officials declared a “state of emergency” in LaSalle Parish, where Jena is located, in order to ensure that some provisions would be made for protesters–portable toilets, emergency service, and so on. The Red Cross was on hand as well, to distribute water and Gatorade–a necessity, when the temperature climbed to 92 degrees by midday.
On the way into town, people’s spirits were buoyed by the size of the turnout. Signs, banners and shirts bore witness to the distances people had traveled–from Washington, D.C., Chicago and Atlanta, and across Texas and Louisiana. Contingents from colleges and Black fraternities, churches and community groups, and civil rights organizations, continued to pour in–along with people who had simply heard about the case and been angered enough to come on their own or with a group of friends.
“Memphis supports the Jena 6,” read one sign. “Atlanta supports the Jena 6: Until the six are free, never are we,” read another, pasted on the side of a van full to overflowing.
One of the passengers, Carnell, was cheering and pumping his fists as he rode on top of the van while it crawled along in the traffic. He said he and his friends decided to make the nine-hour drive after hearing about the case on talk radio. Disbelief gave way to outrage and the desire to do something to help win justice, he explained.
Johnny Williams, better known as “Big John” and a member of the Buffalo Soldiers motorcycle club in Alexandria, La., expressed the same sentiments. “When word got out, it wasn’t any problem [getting people together],” he said. “I wouldn’t be anywhere else today. I think it’s very, very impressive. We need it.
On the way into town, a large highway sign pointed buses toward the Ward 10 Recreation Park, where thousands gathered for a rally featuring civil rights leaders and family members of the Jena 6, to be followed by a march through town later in the day.
But thousands felt compelled to go in the opposite direction–toward the center of town, to the LaSalle Parish Courthouse, where Mychal Bell was convicted, and farther down the road to the Jena High, to seek out evidence of the “white tree” and stand in defiance of racism.
The courthouse stands on a small hill that was soon packed with people, the overflow spilling onto the crowded streets below. As a small group of state police and–it appeared–town officials looked on with stony faces from the steps, protesters jeered or chanted with raised fists: “Free Mychal Bell,” “No justice, no peace,” “Enough is enough.”
In the morning, Rev. Al Sharpton arrived on the courthouse steps with Marcus Jones, the father of Mychal Bell. “This is a march for justice,” Sharpton said as the crowd broke out into cheers.
“[Rev. Martin Luther] King went to Selma. That wasn’t the only place you couldn’t vote. That was the point of action. They went to Birmingham. That wasn’t the only place we didn’t have public accommodations. It was the point of action. Jena is a point of action for the Jenas everywhere. There’s Jenas in Atlanta, there’s Jenas in New York, there’s Jenas in Florida, and there are Jenas all over Texas.”
Later in the day, Rev. Jesse Jackson made the same point, drawing wild applause before leading a march from the park to the courthouse. “There’s a Jena in every state in America,” he said, mentioning police torture of African Americans under the watch of Commander Jon Burge in Chicago, the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles and the use of prison slave labor today at Angola prison in Louisiana.
The message was the same at the high school, where protesters came to see where the “whites only” tree once stood. Shavette Wayne Jones from St. Louis remembered her years as a college student at Grambling State University–when she protested white supremacist David Duke running for governor of Louisiana.
“I just find it ironic that, here I am, coming back down here after that many years, to fight for justice to prevail again,” she said. “I went to school in Louisiana for four years, so I know that not only is here in Louisiana, but it’s everywhere. Sometimes it’s not as blatant as this, but all you have to do is live to experience it. It’s alive and well.”
Helen Comeaux drove five hours from Dallas with her friend Djuna LeBlanc to attend the protest. “I have seven grandkids, and it just scares me for them,” she said. “We have to stand up now and fight. We have to. This happens everywhere. I think this is an eye-opener for everybody, not just Black people. It happens in small towns, big cities, everywhere.”
Her friend Djuna added: “We want to let everybody know that we’re tired, and we’re not going to let our children be thrown away like that. Enough is enough.”
To hear town officials tell it, the problem in Jena isn’t racism, but “outsiders” stirring up trouble.
That certainly seems to be the attitude of Reed Walters, the district attorney. The day before the protest, Walters spoke at what Democracy Now’s Rick Rowley called “one of the unfriendlier press conferences I think I’ve ever seen.”
Walters began by blaming the media for supposedly finding examples of Southern racism where none existed. Jena, he seemed to suggest, was simply suffering from an irrational media bias against the small-town South.
“This case has been portrayed by the news media as being about race, and the fact that it takes place in a small Southern town lends itself to that portrayal,” Walters said. “But it is not and never has been about race. It is about finding justice for an innocent victim and holding people accountable for their actions.”
But Walters, who was also the lawyer for the school board when the nooses were hung, never described how white students were “held accountable” for their actions.
According to Rowley, “At the end, as someone asked [Walters], ‘Why are you trying to destroy these boys’ lives with a stroke of your pen?’ he picked up his folder and scattered microphones across the ground and said, ‘It’s obvious that this press conference is out of control.’ And he turned around and ran back inside the courthouse.”
Minnijean Brown-Trickey, one of the Little Rock Nine, who was expelled from Central High in 1958 in part for spilling food on a group of white boys who were harassing her, compared Walters’ “outsiders” complaint to her own experience.
“The rhetoric is that ‘our Negroes are fine, and y’all people are coming down here, riling them up,’” she told Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman in an interview the day of the Jena demonstration. “That’s what it sounds like, and that’s the tragedy. But I also think it’s because of hearing that again that people feel such a sense of alarm.”
For many of Jena’s Black residents, the presence of “outsiders” is welcome.
When Goodman asked the Jena 6 mother Caseptla Baily, “What do you say to those who say this is a bunch of outsiders coming in, everything was fine in Jena before they started marching on our town?” Bailey replied, “Well, I’d like to say that everything wasn’t fine in Jena. That’s why the outsiders are here, and that’s why everything has gone so tremendously within the last few months.
“So I’d like to applaud those people that have come here from the outside–to come in and to support us and help us and assist us in this matter. I’d like to say, hats off to those persons.”
Gregory Gibbs had the same reaction. “Thirty years late” was how he described the protest for the Jena 6. “It’s been a long time coming,” he said. “We’ve had so much injustice here. We happened to be raised in it, and we survived it. But they do it with the legal system now. They almost got away with it.
Heywood Williams agreed. “There’s a level for the whites and a level for the Blacks,” he said. “It’s just like back in the ’60s, like the way they had the water fountains–one for the colored, and one for the whites. That’s the way our justice system is set up, on two levels–one for the colored, and one for the whites. That’s the way our school system is set up.”
“Living here in Jena, people get along for the most part, but when it comes down to treating each other fairly, the justice system is one-sided.
“And they let you know who you are. They let you know where you’re from and where you’re at. They let you know that you’re in Louisiana and that you’re down in the South. They let you know that they prefer their race to be the dominant race.”
If Reed Walters and Jena officials get their way, things will stay the way they’ve always been. After Bell’s conviction was overturned by the appeals court judge, Walters vowed to appeal.
And in a sore disappointment for supporters of the Jena 6, a judge rejected a request by Mychal Bell’s lawyer to allow the teen to be freed on bail while his appeal is heard–effectively keeping him in prison for the immediate future. A request to remove the original trial judge, J.P. Mauffray Jr., from the case, was also denied–despite the fact that Mauffray preceded over a farce that included Bell being improperly charged as an adult.
The Jena 6 and their families could face other forms of retaliation as well, On the evening of the demonstration, for example, two teens were arrested after driving a pickup through downtown Alexandria, with nooses hanging off the back. Both allegedly had been drinking, and a gun and brass knuckles were found in their truck.
And in the wake of all the publicity surrounding the case, nooses have been found at other schools–Andres High School in North Carolina and the University of Maryland, to name two.
And to top it off, the families of the Jena 6 were targeted for harassment by a neo-Nazi group that called on its Web site for the Jena 6 to be lynched and posted some of the families’ addresses and phone numbers “in case anyone wants to deliver justice.”
Rev. Sharpton said in a statement that “[s]ome of the families have received almost around-the-clock calls of threats and harassment…[The fact] that some person could actually harm or even continue to harass these families with no effort by law enforcement, will further exacerbate the tensions around this case immeasurably.”
The struggle to win justice for the Jena 6 and challenge the racism that the case represents is far from over–but the protests on September 20 were an important step.
“People have been crying out for a long time for equal justice,“ said Heywood Williams. ”It took Al Sharpton and the coalition groups and Jesse Jackson and all the other people who came, and they got the world’s attention. This small thing you see right here in Jena, if you allow it to continue, will spread. If they can get away with it now, they’ll do it again.
“They were going to take those six kids’ lives and just ruin them–just throw them away. That’s what [Reed Walters] was intending to do. They’ve done it for years and years. That’s how we were raised.”
But things are different now that attention has been focused on Jena, says Williams. “I’m glad the people did come because it takes a movement,” he said. “It takes a movement every time. And today we’ve seen it. They showed they whole world, and the whole world is showing this system down here that a change has got to come.”
As Michael Kirkland put it, “I hope it’s an eye opener–the attention of America on Jena. The whole world is watching now.”