I often wondered what would be the wakeup call that finally got black folks off their butts and into action. Police shootings didn’t do it. Innocent men released off death row didn’t do it. Images of people dying and starving after hurricane Katrina didn’t really do it. All those stories nudged at us, but they really didn’t wake us up from our slumber. Instead we rolled over and continued sleeping and used the “I’m too tired” line to excuse our inaction.
Police shootings were “excused.” Maybe the dead man did have a gun or the story went like the police said. Men released off death row were “excused.” They were probably guilty of something else anyway. Hurricane Katrina victims? Out of sight, out of mind.
And so it went, day after day, stories coming out about injustices against black people. We read/watched those stories, accepted them, and then went on about with our daily lives. But the story out of Jena, La. resonated with many of us. I have a theory why. Just like the powerful image of a drinking fountain with the words “whites only” penetrated people’s minds during the days of the original Civil Rights movement, the image in 2006 of black children having to ask permission to sit under a tree sent a message so basic and simple that our only response was to wake up.
Water serves as the fundamental basis for life. As unfair as it was in the pre-Civil Rights days to refuse someone a sip of water from a fountain because of their skin color, it is just as moronic today to tell someone that they can’t take refuge from the hot sun and sit under a schoolyard tree.
So the Jena 6 story resonated with black people in a way that all the prior stories hadn’t. Over 40 years since the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and over 50 years since the Brown vs. the Board of Education decision, we have Jena, La., sounding like something out of 1907, not 2007.
When people heard the story of the Jena 6, the six boys who were accused of beating a white classmate, they heard the entire story. They learned about the request by black kids to be able to sit under the tree. They learned that the next day someone had hung nooses from the tree. They learned of the black kid who was beaten by whites and no one said/did anything about it. They learned about the shotgun being aimed at the black kids. They also knew that the white boy who was beaten was able to attend a party later that night. Then they learned that an “attempted murder” charge placed against six black boys stemmed from the District Attorney’s decision to make gym shoes a dangerous weapon. Were those who beat the white kid up guilty of something? Yes. Were they guilty of attempted murder? Now that’s a stretch.
As the black community learned more, it became more incensed. How is it that black children can get into a fight and the heavy hand of the law comes down on them while white children’s actions of the same nature are summarily dismissed? How is it that 50 years since Brown vs. Board, we have school administrators and others basically accepting the status quo of racial superiority/inferiority?
Most interesting in all of this was that the response from the black community came from the grass roots. It happened because of the power of the Internet to spread the word to people’s e-mail boxes with the click of mouse-information that in pre-Internet days would take months to get out. It happened because of black media, like this newspaper, which focused on the story and stayed focused on the story. It happened because black people are finally at a breaking point, having taken it all and still getting the short end of the stick.
It also happened at a time when black people have watched all the gains we made being eroded by those who want to hijack our struggle in the Civil Rights movement and apply it to their own situation. Gays now want to make their struggle equate with what black people went through. Illegal aliens are attempting to make their plight equivalent to what black people went through. From people with disabilities to Muslims who don’t want to sell a pork sandwich at Dunkin Donuts-they all have tried to hijack the Civil Rights movement to fit their agenda.
The Jena 6 story illustrates how black children are being railroaded by the criminal justice system. But it was the symbol of that tree and the shade it could provide that resonated with most folks. When everybody else can come to America’s front and back door and find shelter from the storm and the descendents of black people who built this country can’t take refuge under a tree, the message is clear. And the message being sent back is clear as well.
America, take notice. Black people have awakened, and we’re not going to take it anymore!