Jena isn't unique

Saturday, September 22
Jena, Louisiana isn't Selma or Montgomery, Alabama, two flashpoints in the fight for civil rights in the 1960s, but recent racial incidents there struck a nerve, as the unexpectedly large number of protesters who overwhelmed the town of 3,000 on Thursday attests. While it is discouraging that racism is still with us, it is encouraging that its presence can still inspire indignation and action.

Racial tensions began simmering in Jena a year ago when black high school students decided to sit under a tree that had long been the exclusive gathering spot for white students. That a "whites-only" tree had survived the civil rights movement was proof enough that all was not right in Jena, and a day later, three nooses were found hanging from its branches. The symbolism of nooses hanging from a tree in the Deep South, where lynchings of blacks are not ancient history, could not be misinterpreted, but the School Committee gave just a three-day suspension to the white students responsible for what board members regarded as a prank.

The noose and the school committee's wrist-slap were followed by several violent incidents, most of them white against black. When six black youths were arrested for assaulting a white teen they were charged with attempted murder, even though their victim attended a school ceremony hours later. Charges against the "Jena Six" were eventually reduced and only one remains in jail, but not until the media spotlight was cast on the town.

The Jena Six are not to be equated with Rosa Parks — they are neither heroes nor innocents. Justice, however, did not fit their crime, and their case reminded us of the prejudice still abroad in the land. While the tree that precipitated this incident is gone, racism remains, and the press and public must be alert to the other Jenas sure to be out there.


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