JENA, La. — An estimated 50,000 protesters riding hundreds of chartered buses from across the nation arrived in this little town at dawn Sept. 20 for a daylong demonstration demanding freedom for the “Jena Six.”
The six Black teenagers face years in prison for daring to sit under “the white tree” on the Jena High School lawn last year and then standing up in protest the next morning when nooses were found hanging from the tree, a menacing symbol of KKK lynch terror.
Their bold stand triggered a racist backlash in which the white students who hung the nooses received a slap on the wrist, while the Black youth were pilloried.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson told a huge crowd, all dressed in black T-shirts in front of the LaSalle Parish courthouse, “Just as Selma was about the right to vote and Little Rock was about the right to first-class schools, this is about fairness in the criminal justice system which is increasingly unfair.”
Bell, 16 at the time, was tried and found guilty by an all-white jury. He has been in jail since last December and was expected to be sentenced Sept. 20.
Louisiana’s 3rd Court of Appeals overturned his conviction on grounds he was improperly tried as an adult. The court’s refusal to release him stirred rage in the crowd. Buckets were passed and $18,000 was collected to cover Bell’s bail. “We’ve got the bail — let him out of jail!” the crowd chanted.
The bus coaches, a majority filled by NAACP local chapters throughout the South, Midwest and Northeast, started pouring in about midnight and were parked for up to a mile on both sides of every road leading into Jena and in any available parking space. Thousands more protesters came by car and van.
Curtis Nelson and 149 other members of a Motorcycle Club in Moss Point, Miss., were joined by 72 bikers from Baton Rouge, La., who roared into town on their gleaming Harley-Davidsons. “Penitentiary for six teenagers for a fist fight? That’s cruel!” Nelson told the World. “When I was in high school you got suspended for getting in fights. And what about the white student who brought a loaded gun to school? They confiscated his gun and hushed it up. That’s not equal justice.”
Burnell Tolbert, president of the LaFourche Parish Branch of the NAACP, came in with a busload from Thibodaux, La. “We’re here because an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he told the World. “A higher court overturned the conviction of Mychal Bell. Why is he still in jail? Evidently, some people believe they are above the law. They say race is not an issue here. If race is not the issue, then what is?”
Tolbert said he is a carpenter working to rebuild houses in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Residents are still waiting for Bush to deliver on promised “Road Home” grants to rebuild, another glaring case of racist injustice.
Every store in this tidy little town, seat of LaSalle Parish, was closed. Only a tiny handful of white residents made an appearance. Yet the visiting throng, a majority Black, was peaceful, law-abiding and determined to help defuse racial tensions, not fuel them.
Hendrix told them gently, “This is not against the people of Jena. We know there are many, many good people, white and Black, in Jena. This is against the Bush administration.”
In a brief interview, Hendrix told the World, “Bush came into office saying he was going to be a ‘uniter, not a divider.’ He has done just the opposite. He has done everything in his power to divide us, white from Black.”