The nation has watched Jena, Louisiana from afar and deduced that somehow this tiny, sleepy town is a throwback to the racial problems of 50 years ago. All major newspapers and television shows have carried accounts of the problems in Jena. The story is so mired in twists and turns that, at first blush, it sounds more like a sophisticated screenplay than a real life story.
By now everyone has heard that the high school located in this 3,000-person town had a history of white kids gathering together under a “white tree.” Evidently, the southern legacy of racial segregation had been passed on to the next generation. The day after Justin Purvis and company defied the white-only status of this high school hangout by sitting under the tree, they encountered an ominous retaliation - three nooses had been hung from that tree as a terrifying symbol of white power, Jim Crow, and lynching.
The school’s African-American students gathered under the tree to protest their situation and were surprised that District Attorney Reed Walters essentially made a declaration of war. He emphatically pronounced, “I could end your lives with the stroke of a pen.”
Eventually, six black kids from Jena brutally beat up a white youth in response to the escalating racial outbreaks in the city. One of the incidents included a young white boy brandishing a shotgun to assert his racial pride. To the outsider, this looks like a town that has lost its equilibrium. White kids seemed to get patronizing slaps on the wrist – because they are “good kids” at heart, while each one of the “Jena 6” were treated like monsters and were originally threatened with 100 years in jail for attempted second degree murder.
Regardless of who you feel is the most right or wrong, we all have to acknowledge that there is a serious problem in Jena. There is no excuse for the violence or attempted violence on either side. Unfortunately both sides have had the tendency of minimizing the damage that their ethnic group has done to the other.
Against this backdrop, between15,000-50,000 people descended on the little burg last Thursday to demonstrate against the injustices and irregularities that have transpired in the case so far. Although I rarely agree with Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, I am thankful that the national attention, which has been given this case, will ensure that Mychal Bell and the rest of the Jena 6 receive justice in the courtroom. But will our nation receive the sense of justice it deserves?
It is obvious that racism and a measure of bad blood, no matter how small, exist on both sides of this issue. At this juncture, we need to engage the younger generations in a structured process of seeking to develop deeper racial harmony in the South. What concerns me the most is that despite the negative Press Jena has received, there are copycats hanging nooses in that region and around the nation. Last Thursday night, kids in nearby Alexandria, LA dragged nooses behind their truck. Friday morning, four nooses were discovered in High Point, North Carolina (nearly 900 miles away) at a local high school.
The primary lesson that I take away from this story is the fact that the generational problems of racism and segregation in the South still exist. This is not to isolate or condemn Jena. Rethinking the race question happens in each successive generation.
How do we begin to heal the racial divide in our nation? After all, despite our nation’s diversity, the black–white gap seems to be the greatest ethnic division we face within our borders. I believe that the only catalyst that can unite the races in America is the Christian Church.
Fifty years ago, the national evangelical movement missed its opportunity to help direct the Civil Rights Movement. If the white church in the South had preached against racism and called for local churches to lead the movement for justice on biblical grounds, they could have helped navigate the nation through many strife-filled years. The church of the ‘50s opted to maintain the status quo instead of leading the nation through a very delicate transition.
Once again, America is at a crossroads. The Church is uniquely poised to help the entire nation develop new ways of dealing with the increasingly complex racial and cultural adjustments necessary to heal our land.
James Jenkins, a strategist with African Americans For the Louisiana Baptist Convention, made the following comments in this regard, “Outsiders tend to stereotype a town like Jena, …I know the people in this town. … This is not a racially divided town…good is going to come out of this. This [national attention] is going to affect relationships in the town, and that will affect the community in a positive way.”
I agree with James Jenkins’ assessment of Jena and her faith. Therefore, I call upon the Christian Church within a 50 mile radius of Jena to start the process of healing by doing the five following things:
1. Initiate a closed door summit with preachers and church leaders mediated by national ministries.
2. Call for a nationwide Reconciliation Sunday to occur next month in which there will be pulpit exchanges and special messages on love, harmony, and racial unity.
3. Develop a Jena scholarship fund for six, of the most deserving black kids at the Jena high school.
4. Implement a program to develop cross-cultural friendships of clergy in the region.
5. Bring the clergy, civic leaders and law enforcement personnel together to discuss community problems. This summit should lead to a concrete plan for easing racial tensions during the next year.
We need a new Civil Rights Movement led by Bible believing, evangelical churches. If you would like to join me in my quest to bring racial healing to our nation, please contact us via our website - thetruthinblackandwhite.com.