White residents of Jena, LA attribute the view of Jena as racist, to "outsiders" who don't really know our town. Well Deja vu. These are EXACTLY the same words used during the civil rights era by so many rural townspeople. "We do just fine here until those outside agitators came". Remember that?
But, it bothered me to see young folk echo their elders mantra in situations that made no sense.
An interviewer's question - "How are the race relations in the high school? Why was there a "white tree"?
Jena High student- "We are fine here. The problem in our school was brought in by outsiders".
So, outsiders came into the Jena public high school and established the "white tree" that black students dare not sit under. I don't think so.
When some black students decided to test this peculiar tree sitting, they went to the school office and asked if they can sit under said tree. Assured that it was ok, a few black students sat under the tree for lunch and breaks just as the white students did. The next day hanging from the tree were three nooses. The students responsible were expelled but that punishment was overturned by the school board as too harsh. So they served a 3-day in-school suspension for this "prank".
Needless to say this provoked hurt feelings. So did the subsequent driving around waving Confederate flags to the cheers to people on the street; the gun pulled on black students filling their tank in a gas station; the set up invitation to a black student to a white party where a bottle was broken over his head (the white teen assailant gets a legal slap on the wrist); the intimidating school assembly, complete with sheriffs police and threats to black students not to make a big deal over this "prank"; and finally the extreme taunting and use of the "N" word by the white teen (who had been involved in several on and off school incidents) being knocked down and beat up at school. This student was treated, released and he attended a social function that same evening. Six black teens were charged with attempted murder.
Well, Jena saw some "outsiders" September 20th when more than 50,000 Americans came to the small town of 2900 to protest the attempt to put these teens away for life.
Jena residents that I saw interviewed were concerned that the nation will view Jena as racist. How interesting to watch these people, many of whom really believe there are no race problems. Well, for them there aren't. "We shop in the same malls and go to the same movies and go to the same schools. You people have the wrong idea, we are not racist." When black residents are interviewed the answers are quite different. There is a lot of fear in Jena. Fear to speak up or buck the systematic racism that is at the core of that city - so ingrained that it is almost normal. Fear deep, for Blacks and whites. The mother of Mychal Bell, (a black teen still jailed) says many white Jena residents told her they support her son and the others but are afraid to say so. Healing and uniting, silenced by fear.
Monica Roberts mentions this protest march, that was described as disciplined, focused, peaceful, uplifting and inspiring, as being an opportunity for a teachable moment for our youth about our history and the civil rights movement. Absolutely.
Now, they may not see the fire hoses or dogs or ax handles, but the symbols embodied in nooses and Confederate flags, white only shade trees, and the reality of double standard justice is a chilling lesson.
Jena, so concerned about it's image, missed a golden opportunity September 20th to show the nation what they were made of and to stand up and teach their children and bring the people of Jena together. Instead, they closed down city functions, officially incommunicado, and many boarded up their houses, yes boarded up, closed their businesses and left town for the day.
I hope the good folks of Jena, and towns like Jena, will use this painful situation to see the truth, face the fear and make changes.
They were of all ages.
They came in buses, big rigs, motorcycles and on horses.
They remembered a time not so long ago.
Martin L. King III