In 1964, the murders of three young civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss., weren't considered a big deal in the rural Delta town or even in many parts of Mississippi, but across the nation and around the world the slayings symbolized all that was wrong with the South in the era of Jim Crow. Mississippi and its citizens paid a steep price for what a handful of angry white men did in Philadelphia -- and for the rest of the state's failure to correct an obvious injustice. For almost three decades, Mississippi stagnated economically and politically, as if the world had drawn a huge red line around its borders and warned everyone to stay out. Only after years of struggle has the Magnolia State seen significant outside investment and social progress, and that struggle continues.
Today, in rural Jena, La., the same kind of injustice that tore Mississippi apart more than four decades ago threatens to stigmatize this state as well. Six young black men face more than 20 years in jail for the schoolyard beating of a white fellow student at Jena High School -- after a white student got by with a misdemeanor charge and a brief suspension from school for beating up a black kid. That kind of in-your-face disparity assaults the sensibilities of any reasonable observer; the facts that led up to the charges are equally stark. Unfortunately, many people are taking sides without fully knowing all the facts surrounding the "Jena Six." Here they are:
For years, an oak tree in the Jena High School yard -- planted 20 years ago as "the tree of knowledge" -- was regarded as a "whites only" spot of shade at the school. Last year, Kenneth Purvis, a black student then in his junior year, asked school officials if he could sit beneath the tree. He was told that he could sit anywhere he liked. Not long afterward, Purvis and several black friends went to the tree to hang out with white classmates. The next day, three nooses hung from the tree.
That should have been signal enough to school officials, but the symbolism of that ugly gauntlet apparently was lost on them: they suspended the three white boys who admitted hanging the nooses for a few days, but that was it. The incident and school officials' obtuse handling of it touched off a cycle of racial discord at the school and around the small town of 3,500, which is more than 85 percent white. An arsonist burned down a wing of the school during last year's Thanksgiving break. Soon afterward, Robert Bailey Jr., a black student, was punched and beaten with beer bottles when he tried to attend a mostly white party. The white youth who reportedly threw the first punch was charged with simple battery and given probation. The next day, a young white man who was at the party allegedly pulled a gun on Bailey, who wrestled it away. Bailey was later charged with stealing the gun.
The following week at school, Justin Barker, a white student who is a friend of the boys who hung the nooses, allegedly taunted Bailey during lunch. Later, a black student hit Barker from behind and knocked him unconscious. White witnesses say a group of black students -- including Bailey -- then beat up Barker, kicking and stomping him. Black witnesses dispute that account. Barker was treated at a local hospital and released that same day. He attended a ring ceremony that evening and returned to school the next morning.
The six black students who allegedly beat him were immediately arrested and charged with attempted second-degree murder. District Attorney Reed Walters sees no injustice in the disparate charges thrown at white and black youths. Bear in mind, a white kid beat up Bailey with a beer bottle but got off with a misdemeanor charge and probation. Black students who beat up a white kid with only their tennis shoes as "weapons" were initially charged with attempted second-degree murder, which carries a sentence of up to 80 years in prison. A judge reduced the charges to attempted second-degree battery, but they still face 22 years in jail each. An all-white jury has already convicted one of the "Jena Six," 17-year-old Mychal Bell. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Thursday (Sept. 20), and the town could boil over if he gets a long jail term. Some 20,000 protesters are expected to descend upon Jena this week.
Ironically, the "tree of knowledge" in the Jena schoolyard has been cut down for firewood. Some now call it "the tree of ignorance."
Jena's racial strife is real, and there's an equally real danger that it could spill all over Louisiana. The biggest mistake that civic, political, business and religious leaders across the state can make is to shrug this off as "Jena's problem" and use that as an excuse to ignore an obvious injustice. That's the mistake many in Mississippi made in 1964.
We call upon Gov. Kathleen Blanco, all candidates for governor, and local and statewide business, civic and religious leaders to use every ounce of moral and legal authority they have to correct the injustice dealt the Jena Six. This is not just Jena's problem. If our leaders don't act quickly and decisively, Jena's problem will soon be Louisiana's problem -- and by then it will be too late.