CNN devoted an entire hour to the chaos in Jena, La., and rendered a considerable service. We hear, running through it all, the voices of critical figures -- the district attorney, the school principal and a school board member, the mothers of the defendants and of the victim, the outsiders. The temptation for this journalist was to seek to isolate words and events and watch the tensions rise, the ease with which despair made its way into the picture, creating a scene reproduced throughout the world.
Kyra Phillips, CNN anchor: "... nothing has been normal since the three nooses were hung from a school tree."
Ms. Phillips continued in voiceover: "Jena, La., population about 3,000. It's like so many small Southern towns. Jena is about 85 percent white, 13 percent black, and people here are, for the most part, civil to one another. Still, blacks and whites keep largely to themselves. Social life here is built on two enduring pillars, high school football and church on Sunday ...
"But civility and tolerance were splintered just over a year ago, on Aug. 31, 2006, when No. 33, Kenneth Purvis, a star junior fullback for the Jena Giants, asked if he and his friends could sit under this large oak tree on the high school grounds, a tree that Purvis and other black students believed was an unofficial gathering place reserved for white students only."
Purvis and his friends asked for, and received, permission from a school official to sit under the tree. The next day, they received a very different message from some of their schoolmates.
PHILLIPS: So, you come to school the next day.
PURVIS: Yes, ma'am.
PHILLIPS: And what did you see?
PURVIS: There was three nooses hung up in the tree.
The nooses were taken down immediately and the three white students who had put them up were identified. The school principal, Scott Windham, wanted the three expelled, but the boys' parents appealed to the school board, which accepted their plea that hanging the nooses was a prank, not a threat. Instead of being expelled, the students were suspended for just a few days. Many of Jena's black residents were furious.
The school principal called an assembly of students and teachers and invited longtime district attorney Reed Walters to address the assembly. Several people who were present quoted Walters as saying, "See this pen in my hand? I can end your lives with the stroke of a pen."