By Alan Bean
The New Jim Crow comes to Jena, Louisiana
In 1991, the same year Larry Stewart was elected Sheriff of Swisher County, Texas, J. Reed Walters became District Attorney of LaSalle Parish in north central Louisiana, winning 52% of the vote. David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon who ran for governor that year, carried 70% of the vote in the parish, his best showing in Louisiana. Since the LaSalle Parish electorate is 86% white, this suggests that an unapologetic racist won over 80% of the white vote that year.
In 2008, 85.5% of LaSalle Parish voters supported John McCain; a likely indication that Barack Obama received zero support from white voters.
When Reed Walters passed his bar exams in 1980, Speedy O. Long was still District Attorney. Long took the young attorney under his wing and taught him the ropes. When Speedy went to his reward in 2005, Reed Walters called him a friend and mentor.
Speedy Long was a Louisiana state senator from 1956 to 1964, the year he decided to challenge his congressman cousin, Gillis Long. Both men were ardent segregationists, but Speedy actively courted the support of the Ku Klux Klan and they marched at his political rallies in full regalia. The “Original Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Realm of Louisiana” composed a little jingle in Speedy’s honor: “Let Gillis go. Elect Speedy O.”
Speedy served as a Dixiecrat congressman until 1973, the year he realized it was no longer possible to serve as an outspoken segregationist, Speedy Long retired from federal politics and was elected LaSalle Parish District Attorney just as Reed Walters was graduating from high school.
In other words, when Reed Walters came of age, the virtues of white supremacy and Jim Crow segregation were accepted without qualm or quibble. When the Supreme Court mandated the desegregation of schools in 1969, Jena High School grudgingly complied, but few hearts and minds had changed.
Black students and white students attended classes together but rarely mingled outside of class. As late as 2006, the school auditorium was segregated during school assemblies; blacks on one side of the aisle, whites on the other. During the lunch hour, white students congregated under the tree at one side of the square; black students hung out by the gym
Then, in the fall of 2006, at a school assembly on the first day of school, a black freshman named Kenneth Purvis nervously raised his hand and asked the principal if it was okay for black kids to sit under the tree on the white side of the square.
Principal Scott Windham didn’t hesitate. “Y’all can sit wherever y’all want,” he replied. What else was he going to say? This was 2006 and Jena High School was officially a colorblind campus. After school, Kenneth and his freshman friends raced to the tree when assembly was over and stretched out in its shade.
The next morning, two nooses in the school colors (black and gold) were hanging from that tree. Three white students quickly admitted responsibility. There was nothing racist about it, they insisted. They had just seen a rerun of Lonesome Dove on television and had been impressed by the scene where the good guys strung up a pack of desperados.
District Superintendent, Roy Breithaupt was getting calls from white parents. Three days of in-school suspension ought to do it, Breithaupt thought. He took the Lonesome Dove story at face value and called the ‘noose incident’ an “innocent prank”.
Incensed black parents hurriedly called a meeting at a black Baptist church. “I have a son who goes to Jena High School, and I won’t tolerate this,” a parent said. “This racism, this stuff, won’t be tolerated at all.”
The school was soon on full lockdown and police officers were patrolling the halls. Several black football players held a spontaneous sit-in under the tree in the square and a series of shoving matches ended in school suspensions. Principal Windham called a school assembly. Every police officer in town was in the auditorium in dress uniform. Windham gave a school spirit pep talk reminding everybody how promising the football season was looking. Then District Attorney Reed Walters strode to the podium.
In Walter’s mind, the noose business had been blown entirely out of proportion by the regional media and black parents. As he explained at hearing months later, the kids should have been left to “work things out on their own.”
In the end, that is precisely what happened.
Turning to the black side of the auditorium, Walters told the students that he could be their best friend or their worst enemy. He pulled a Paper mate out of his pocket. “I just want you all to realize,” he said, “that I can make your lives disappear with a stroke of my pen.”
The black football players who had led the sit-in under the tree earlier that day got the message. So did a group of white students who had attended all-white elementary and Jr. High schools. In their minds, Reed Walters had just taken the side of the white noose hangers against the black protesters. There was no other way to interpret Walters’ statement.
Over the next few months, a series of off-campus fights broke out between black and white students. When the police arrived everyone scattered. Charges were never pressed. Besides, the football team was headed for the playoffs. Nobody wanted to mess with success.
Then, in late November, somebody burned down the main academic wing of the high school. The next night, a black student was assaulted by a group of whites at a dance. The following morning, a white student was beaten by black students after he pulled an automatic rifle out of his truck.
Then, just after lunch hour on the first day back at school, a white student named Justin Barker was attacked by a black student. According to some reports, several other black students kicked Barker as he lay unconscious on the ground. Barker was taken to the hospital, treated for scrapes and bruises, and released. That evening, still badly bruised, he attended a school function.
When Reed Walters learned what had happened at the school he was furious. He charged the six defendants with attempted murder and conspiracy to attempt murder, charges carrying a mandatory minimum sentence of twenty-five years without parole. He had warned the black students that he could destroy their lives with a stroke of his pen and was determined to make good on that threat.
Articles in the local paper described the Jena 6 as a menacing gang of toughs who had been terrorizing the campus for months. Flowery rhetoric from Reed Walter’s pastor associated the Jena 6 with the drug dealing criminal element that had vacated New Orleans a year earlier in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Two weeks after the school beat down, I arrived in Jena. The real problem was immediately obvious: the cruel legacy of Jim Crow injustice had been covered with a thin veneer of colorblind whitewash. As a result, no one could acknowledge the racial elephant in the room. Jena was in desperate need of conversation and instruction; but punishment was the only tool Reed Walters carried in his little black bag.
A week after the Jena 6 were locked away in the LaSalle Parish Jail, local pastors (including a few leaders from black churches) gathered to discuss the incident. “Our purpose here tonight is not to talk about what has happened,” Reed Walters’ pastor told the group, “but rather to pray for healing and unity for our community. This is not a social problem, but a spiritual problem that can only be solved by God.”
It couldn’t be a social problem. If it was, people like Reed Walters would bear the lion’s share of responsibility.