Editor’s note: The Aug. 2 edition of Austin Weekly News ran a story titled, “The Jena 6: Something you should know about.” The AWN website subsequently received numerous responses, including some from Jena residents. On Wednesday, Sept. 19, Austin Weekly reporter Delores McCain traveled to Jena, Louisiana, where a massive demonstration march took place in support of the Jena Six.
Organizing one of several buses from Chicago was civil rights veteran Rev. Al Sampson, one of two individuals present who was actually ordained by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Doris Lewis, a community leader, activist and former Chicago Public School teacher/counselor. Gatlins Bus Service, 101st & Halsted, is also the home of one of Chicago’s leading funeral homes. Gatlins is probably the only funeral home in the country with a drive-thru viewing window, which allows those who might be crippled, in wheelchairs or unable to walk also pay their respects. David Hurd, supervisor; Roscoe Herron, John Randolph, and Tony Richmond handled the driving.
Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network Organization (newly opened Chicago offices) and the Gatlins bus met in the 87th Street Shopping Mall and all buses departed together for Jena, La. Leaving at 1 p.m., we arrived in Jena at approximately 6:45 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 20.
As the caravan of buses arrived, we were greeted by state troopers who had blocked off the main street. We were told by police to leave our buses, and our bus would be found later after the march. What a logistical nightmare that became after the march because no one knew the location of their bus or where police had told drivers to park.
Prior to the march, a short rally was held on the LaSalle Parish Courthouse steps where Mychal Bell, one of the Jena 6, was being held. Participating in this rally were Rev. Sharpton, Jena family members, Rev. Sampson, former Chicago alderman Dorothy Tillman, Cong. Maxine Waters, Cong. Sheila Jackson Lee, Cong. William Jefferson (D-La.), Martin Luther King III, Rev. Bernice King, Dick Gregory and two of the Jena 6, Carwin Jones and Bryant Purvis.
Jena closes shop
The town of Jena was virtually closed-most businesses were closed and few residents were seen. AWN wasn’t successful in finding any Jena residents to interview. The one white resident we spotted was a lady standing in her yard who was telling the state trooper that demonstrators were too close to her grass.
There was at least 50,000 demonstrators, the majority being young people from around the country. Many of the young people came from historically black colleges (HBC) and almost everyone wore black attire. The young people were polite, orderly and the entire march took place without any incidents. One young lady said she was from Shreveport, some 160 miles away. I told her that was my mother’s hometown. She said it was very important to her to be here for the march. She said young people today are viewed only as hip-hop fans who aren’t aware of issues regarding race relations. “We should take a stand for injustice anywhere it occurs,” she stated.
Fernwood United Methodist Pastor Sampson said he viewed this as a historic event: “It was a great moment. I saw so many young people, it made me reflect back to my days at Shaw University at Raleigh, N.C. when I was president of NAACP, both on campus and president of youth and college chapters all over North Carolina. The organization Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC] was founded on my campus in 1960. I remember sitting in the room [in the early 1960s] with three young boys when we told Roy Wilkins [prominent activist and executive secretary of NAACP], “You go to Washington, D.C.; we’re going to the streets.” This was like deja vu for me. The other thing that impressed me was the powerful radio voices of Michael Baisden (FM 106) and Rev. Al Sharpton (WVON 1690).”
Prior to the march, speeches were made in front of the courthouse. Mychal Bell’s father, Marcus, thanked everyone for coming. “The only thing that would make this better,” he said, “is if my son wasn’t in there [pointing to the courthouse].” He introduced Rev. Sharpton, describing him as “a man who answered our call-didn’t nobody ever think he’d come to a little small town like Jena to gives us help, but he did.”
civil rights movement
“No justice, no peace,” Sharpton chanted when he came to podium. “Free the Jena 6!
“Don’t let anybody distract you,” he said. “We know they will try to put provocateurs and saboteurs in [our way]. We’re going to have one rally. We’re going to show our dignity and our strength. Don’t let nobody provoke you or distract you. We come for justice, not for nobody’s mess. These parents have suffered, these parents have gone through the trauma, these parents have had to visit their children in jail. We went yesterday and visited Mychal Bell who is in leg irons and handcuffs for a schoolyard fight. There is something wrong about a prosecutor who says it’s not a hate crime to hang nooses on trees. There is something wicked, there is something wrong about a prosecutor who doesn’t indict people for beating up black kids-or indict them for shotguns on black kids. But then when there is a fight involving black kids, they indict for attempted murder and act like sneakers were a murder weapon. We are not endorsing fighting, but two wrongs don’t make one civil right. We must have one standard of justice.
“We have many people here, we’re going to march past the school, we’re then going to have a mass rally in Alexandria, we’re not going to spend no money in Jena today. We didn’t come here to stay and spend money. This is the beginning of the 21st century civil rights movement. In the 20th century, we had to fight for where we sat on the bus. Now we got to fight on how we sit in a courtroom. We’ve gone from plantation to penitentiary, where they have tried to create a criminal justice system that particularly targets our young black men. And now we sit and stand in a city that says its a “prank” to hang a hangman’s noose, but it is attempted murder to have a fight. We cannot sit by silently. That’s why we came, and that’s why we intend to keep coming. We’re going from here to Washington, D.C. We’re going to change the federal laws. You think we brought thousands to Jena, you wait until we go to D.C. There are Jenas all over America, there are Jenas in New York, there are Jenas in Atlanta, there are Jenas all over Texas.”
Another participant, longtime West Side activist Barbara Minor, said the reason she came to Jena was to support the families. “They are enduring what we’ve always endured in this country. And to try and make an impact so that my grandchildren and their children won’t have to suffer the same kind of racial injustice.”
Immediately following the rally in nearby Alexandria (about 40 miles), two white youths were reportedly arrested after allegedly driving a pickup truck with nooses hanging off the back. Jeremiah Munsen, 18 and his 16-year-old passenger were reportedly cruising back and forth past demonstrators waiting to board their buses.
Meanwhile, a white supremacist website surfaced on Friday that listed the name and addresses of the Jena youths. News media released a recording in which an individual states his desire to shoot the youths.
On Sept. 25, Rev. Sharpton, along with Rep. Maxine Waters, Martin Luther King III and others, met with Cong. John Conyers, chairman, and members of the House Judiciary Committee, seeking federal action.
There is also an inquiry in progress, regarding District Attorney Reed Walters, who charged Mychal Bell with attempted second-degree murder and also was alleged to have told the Jena 6 “with a stroke of a pen he could ruin their lives.” Bell was 16 years old when the state appeals court threw out this conviction on Sept. 14. He, along with four other Jena black youth, were originally charged with attempted second-degree murder following a school fight. Civil rights leaders and many activists have stated publicly that Reed showed bias in his charges.
Black U.S. Attorney Donald Washington also came under severe criticism after stating in a CNN interview that he didn’t have grounds to file federal hate crimes against the kids who hung the nooses, although the FBI has contested that.
As of this publication, Mychal Bell still sits in jail and the judge has declined to grant bail.