On the march against racism
On the march against racism
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
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
The story of the
Hundreds rallied on college campuses in
And then there was
Ashleigh Randle, a student at the
"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
Shavette Wayne Jones traveled to
Among everyone in the streets of
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THE DOUBLE standards that run through the case of the
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
Dismissed as a "prank" by LaSalle Parish Schools Superintendent Roy Breithaupt, the white students who hung the nooses received in-school suspensions.
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
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
According to the
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.
The reversal of Mychal's conviction, however, doesn't affect the four other
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UNEQUAL "JUSTICE" is nothing new in
When the superintendent suggested that the hanging of the nooses was a "prank,"
As for the incident with the shotgun,
Gregory Gibbs, who was raised in
According to Gibbs and Williams, it's not surprising that racial tensions would flare up at the high school, since kids in
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
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
But some Democrats are finding themselves on the hot seat for their failure to speak out. Earlier in the week, at a meeting in
The emotions stirred by the injustice in
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WHEN THE charges against Mychal Bell were overturned earlier this month,
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
The next morning, buses and cars began arriving in
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
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
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
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
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
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
Helen Comeaux drove five hours from
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."
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TO HEAR town officials tell it, the problem in
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.
"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
For many of
When Goodman asked the
"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
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
"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
If Reed Walters and
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
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
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
"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
"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
As Michael Kirkland put it, "I hope it's an eye opener--the attention of