In September 2006, a group of African American high school students in Jena, Louisiana, asked the school for permission to sit beneath a "whites only" shade tree.
There was an unwritten rule that blacks couldn't sit beneath the tree. The school said they didn't care where students sat. The next day, students arrived at school to see three nooses (in school colors) hanging from the tree.
The boys who hung the nooses were suspended from school for a few days. The school administration chalked it up as a harmless prank, but Jena's black population didn't take it so lightly. Fights and unrest started breaking out at school.
The District Attorney, Reed Walters, was called in to directly address black students at the school and told them all he could "end their life with a stroke of the pen."
Black students were assaulted at white parties. A white man drew a loaded rifle on three black teens at a local convenience store. (They wrestled it from him and ran away.) Someone tried to burn down the school, and on December 4th, a fight broke out that led to six black students being charged with attempted murder. To his word, the D.A. pushed for maximum charges, which carry sentences of eighty years. Four of the six are being tried as adults (ages 17 & 18) and two are juveniles.
The six charged were: Robert Bailey Jr., 17, whose bail was set at $138,000; Theo Shaw, 17, whose bail totaled $130,000; Carwin Jones, 18, whose bail was $100,000; Bryant Purvis, 17, whose bail was $70,000; Mychal Bell, a 16 year-old high school sophomore was charged as an adult whose bail was set at $90,000; and a still unidentified minor.
On Thursday, June 28, 2007, at the LaSalle Parish Courthouse in Jena, Louisiana, after deliberating for less than three hours an all-white jury of six returned with a unanimous guilty verdict against Mychal Bell a gifted athlete and solid student with a promising future.
The trial and the circumstances leading up to the trial raise serious questions about racial bias in our justice system. Attorneys who have reviewed the charges and the trail of Bell say that this case reflects a national trend involving disparate treatment of African Americans within the United States criminal justice system. Many have questions the effectiveness of Mr. Bell's counsel as well.
District Attorney Reed Walters said in December that his decision to prosecute the black teenagers to the full extent of the law had nothing to do with race. He would not comment further on the case while it is pending. But black residents in Jena said issues of race permeate their town.
Town leaders were looking for a fresh start, a way to erase the recent memory of Jim Crow-like hangman's nooses dangling from a shade tree at the local high school. So they cut the tree down. But after the events of the past 12 months, that attempt by white officials about three weeks ago to heal the town's deep racial divide before the start of a new school year might be too little, too late.
Black residents said the tying of the nooses was evidence that race relations have not improved that much. They said the superintendent's decision to hand only a three-day suspension to the white students, who tied the nooses, overriding the principal's decision to expel them, sparked the anger that led to the disturbance.
Advocates See National Trend
Over zealous prosecutions of black youngsters are multiplying across the nation. In Douglas Country, Ga., Genarlow Wilson was convicted of molestation and sentenced to 10 years for engaging in consensual sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was 17. He served more than two years before a judge voided the sentence, but Wilson, now 21; remains in prison while the state appeals.
Also in Georgia the state Supreme Court threw out the conviction of Marcus Dixon, 19, who was serving a 10-year prison sentence for having sex with an underage white girl in 2003. In Paris, Texas, a special conservator ordered the release of Shaquanda Cotton, 16, who was serving up to seven years for shoving a white teacher's aide in 2005. Months earlier, the same white judge had given probation to a 14-year-old white girl who burned down her family's home.
These cases and many that have not received high profile attention lead many African American civil rights and justice advocates to see two systems of justice: one system of justice for white America and another for black Americans.
According to a study by the Washington-based Campaign for Youth Justice titled "And Justice for Some: Differential Treatment of Minority Youth in the Justice System, black youths represented 28 percent of juvenile arrests and 58 percent of youths sent to adult prisons between 2002 and 2004.
Justice for All
The story of the Jena 6 reads like one from the Jim Crow era. Jena, with a population of less than 3000, is the largest town in and parish (county) seat of LaSalle Parish, Louisiana. There are about 350 African-Americans in the town. LaSalle has a population of just over 14,000 people - 12 percent African-American.
Ever since December, families of the Jena 6 have been fighting to overcome the Jim Crow "justice" being applied to their sons. They have protested, organized, and asked for outside help to show the town's white power structure that they will not sit idly by as their loved ones are railroaded into a life behind bars.
Their efforts are beginning to pay off. Mychal Bell was originally scheduled to be sentenced on July 31st, but the sentencing has been postponed until September 20th. Local organizers are convinced that officials got nervous about holding the sentencing on a day when much so attention would be focused on Jena.
This small victory didn't come because the Governor or the Justice Department stepped in, and it wasn't because of a hard-hitting expose by a major news organization. It was because a relatively small number of concerned citizens.
The NAACP along with several other local, state and national organizations have mounted petition drives. Send a letter to Governor Blanco, please visit Color of Change.