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?
Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.