I’m writing to urge all of my readers to take action and demand justice for the African American youths known as “the Jena Six.” These young men, all teenagers, are in great peril of being condemned to long prison terms for allegedly participating in a school fight in the small rural town of Jena, Louisiana. Mychal Bell, 17, has already been convicted by an all-White jury of aggravated second-degree battery and may be sentenced to as much as 15 years and a $10,000 fine at a hearing scheduled for September 20th.
Outrage over this prosecutorial madness has spread. National organizations including the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Anti-Defamation League, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Congressional Black Caucus have organized opposition to the conviction of Bell and the arrests of the five other students. The Chicago-based Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference has reached out to more than 1,000 faith leaders and organizations to join in a National Day of Prayer on September 17 and to hold candlelight vigils on September 19, the evening before the sentencing hearing. Thousands are expected to go to Jena on September 20th from across the nation to bear witness and demand justice.
Meanwhile, in Maryland, a troubling event on the University of Maryland’s College Park campus signals that a dangerous undertow from our nation’s darker times is not limited to the Deep South. On September 7, a hangman’s noose was found in a tree outside the campus’s Nyumburu Cultural Center on September 7. Nyumburu means “freedom house” in Swahili. The Center is used by Black faculty and staff associations and houses the Black Explosion newspaper. Maryland police and the FBI are investigating this hate crime.
The calamity of injustice surrounding the case of the Jena Six also involves a hangman’s noose. Last fall, Black students conducted a peaceful protest over an oak tree on the Jena High School campus that was by tradition a gathering place reserved for White students only. In reaction to the protest, three hangman’s nooses were looped over one of the tree’s branches. The three White students responsible were suspended from school for three days. When LaSalle Parish District Attorney J. Reed Walters stepped in, he directed his hostility toward the protesters, rather than those rekindling the legacy of White supremacy that the “White tree” represented. In a stunning display of bias, Walters demanded that the Black students stop their protests or he would exercise the powers of his office and, in his words, “take away your lives with a stroke of a pen.”
As Black-White relations in this town of 3,000 grew more strained, Robert Bailey, Jr., a Black student, was attacked and beaten as he attempted to enter a White house party. A beer bottle was broken over his head. His main attacker, Justin Sloan, a White man, was charged with simple battery and released on probation — far more lenient treatment than the Jena Six received.
On December 4, 2006, Justin Barker, a White student who was known to have taunted some of his African American classmates, was beaten by several Black students. After the incident, Barker went to the hospital, was released the same day and attended a ring ceremony that evening. Six Black teenagers were then arrested for the beating: Mychal Bell, Robert Bailey, Jr., Theodore Shaw, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis and Jesse Beard. As if to affirm his disregard for justice, District Attorney Walters initially charged all but one of them with attempted murder as adults. Beard was charged in juvenile court. None of them had previously been in trouble with the law. The charges against Bailey, Jones and Shaw have since been reduced. I don’t know where Mr. Walters received his legal education, but he must have missed the course on Constitutional Law where the doctrine of equal protection under the law is taught. His actions need to be investigated.
What’s happening to the Jena Six is not unique. White sheriffs, police officials and prosecutors in small isolated towns, mostly in the South, believe they can mete out justice to Black people with the impunity of their forebears under America’s pre-1960s system of racial apartheid. Away from the light of national scrutiny, they believe they can still trample on the civil rights of Black people at their whim.
But this is a case where we can and must make our voices heard. Please call LaSalle Parish District Attorney J. Reed Walters today at (318) 992-8282 and demand justice for the Jena Six. And let’s be prepared to stay on this case until all the Jena Six have been freed.