The drama unfolding in Jena Louisiana has spawned two high-profile stories: one, by Howard Witt of the Chicago Tribune; the other, by Tom Mangold, in the London Observer. Both stories have entered the Blogosphere and have been reprinted by the Baltimore Sun and even an English language newspaper in China.
The civil rights movement convulsed America for a full decade by forging a sturdy alliance between high status black leaders and white liberals. White conservatives screamed that the Jim Crow laws were about states rights. But black opinion leaders found these laws were humiliating and once white liberals were persuaded that Jim Crow and justice were incompatible, they became desperate to dissociate themselves from these loathsome statutes. According to the official story line, the civil rights steamroller plowed through the states rights facade in a glorious march to liberty and justice for all.
The Jena story suggests that certain pockets of Deep South America didn’t get the civil rights memo. That is certainly the burden of the Jena stories published yesterday. Mr. Witt’s headline reads, “Racial demons rear heads.” Mr. Mangold takes things a step further with his “Racism goes on trial again in America’s Deep South.” The Jena story gives white Southerners yet another opportunity to voice a clear and unequivocal “no” to the dismal legacy of Jim Crow.
Would this story be attracting so much media attention if it had nothing to offer but an addled DA over-reacting to a school fight—even if the hapless defendants were facing multi-decade sentences without parole? I suspect not. So thank God for the nooses hanging in the school yard! These vile reminders of lynch mob morality have attracted attention to an all-too familiar story that rarely gets much attention. Jena is being covered as a story about the persistence of the old Jim Crow, but it is much more than that. Jena is also a story about the new Jim Crow: the manipulation of the criminal justice system to deprive low status black people of basic justice.
The trial of the first three Jena defendants, originally scheduled to begin this morning, has been continued until sometime next month. DA Reed Walters had been trying to get one of the defendants to plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence. This would have made Walters’ job much easier, but no one took the bait. Then a defense attorney filed a motion to have Mr. Walters recused from this case. Initial indications are that Judge Mauffray has scheduled a hearing for mid-June to determine if Mr. Walters should recuse himself from this case. That ought to be as interesting as the trial itself.
I hope the media doesn’t get tired of waiting for the wheels of justice to grind. I got a call from the BBC yesterday asking if they could interview me later in the day. I told them that would be fine, but they needed to know the trial had been continued. That was the end of that. But the delay won’t stop Tom Mangold’s documentary on Jena from airing on BBC 2 this Thursday evening; nor, I suspect, will it keep flagship publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post from getting a piece of the Jena action.
The lull in the action may frustrate the press, but it is good news for the defendants. The more attention this story attracts the harder it will be for Reed Walters to work his usual magic before an all-white jury. If you would like more background on this story please give me a call.
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