Jena, Louisiana five years on

 By Alan Bean

Reed Walters doesn’t think he did a very good job explaining his prosecution of the Jena 6.  It wasn’t for lack of opportunity.  The New York Times invited the LaSalle Parish DA to write an op-ed and the Christian Science Monitor published a curious piece of historical reconstruction written by a Walters supporter at the Jena Times. 

In his NYT op-ed, Walters defended his refusal to charge the boys who hung nooses from a tree at the Jena High School with a hate crime.  It didn’t take much ingenuity to make the case.  Charging the noose boys with a hate crime was always a really bad idea.  The kids needed a history lesson on lynch law and the South’s history of racial violence.  A few months in prison would simply have left them traumatized and unchanged.

Things got out of hand in Jena because nobody in a position of power could acknowledge that the noose hanging was racially motivated.  The nooses appeared the morning after a freshman asked if it was okay for black students to sit under the tree in question.  But when the noose hangers insisted they were just acting out a scene from the popular miniseries Lonesome Dove, men like Reed Walters and Superintendent Roy Breithaupt were eager to believe them.


You don’t talk about the South’s racial history in towns like Jena.  That’s why.

It wasn’t that black parents wanted the noose hangers charged with a hate crime; they simply wanted town officials to acknowledge what really happened and to take it seriously.

Instead, when black students staged a school protest and racially tinged fights broke out on the school campus, Reed Walters calmed the situation by threatening to “end the lives” of the protesters “with a stroke of my pen”. 

Asked to explain this behavior in open court, Walters said he resented being called to the campus.  The students should have been able to work out their differences “on their own”.  In other words, the black students had nothing to protest and were merely acting out.

This phase of the story is rarely reported. 

I find it curious that none of the civil rights groups and community organizers who came to the support of Jena’s black community were interviewed for this story.  It is more than a bit curious that the AP story was accompanied by six sympathetic pictures of white beating victim Justin Barker but not a single photograph of anyone else. 

Essentially, this is a “town heals; life moves on” story. 

Is that all there is to say after half a decade?  What deeper lessons can be learned from Jena?  White America never understood what the fuss was about.  Nooses hanging from a tree didn’t seem all that threatening to white readers; getting jumped by six black thugs did.

The reaction of Black America couldn’t have been more different.  When young black males are accused of a crime, there is always a measure of suspicion in the black community.  Were all of these kids guilty as charged?  And if they were, did a school yard beat-down justify charged of attempted murder, with the defendants’ running shoes serving as the alleged murder weapon? 

Black Americans were deeply offended by the noose hanging and they didn’t buy the Lonesome Dove story.  No one was asking that the defendants get off with a wrist slap if the state had real evidence of guilt (a big ‘if’ in some cases); but did Louisiana really want to destroy the lives of six young men because racially insensitive white folks responded to a racial crisis with massive denial and threats of prosecution?

Black America approached the Jena 6 story with the seasoned insight of a literary critic; most white folks demonstrated the crude naiveté of a sixth grader.  Focusing obsessively on a single aspect of a complex narrative, they missed the significance of the story.  You couldn’t really blame them; few white Americans have felt the sting of bigotry or witnessed a  judicial meltdown up close and personal.

Then Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Michael Baisden arrived on the scene demanding that Mr. Walters prosecute the noose boys as hate criminals.   Message: lock everybody up and we’ll be satisfied.  That may not be the message the celebrity crowd intended to project but, as Reed Walters’ NYT op-ed suggests, it was the message every received.

I’m glad that the seven young men tangled up in this southern melodrama are all doing okay.  As the first organizer on the scene, I sometimes wonder if I would have tackled the story had I known how it would turn out.  Of course I would.  Lives were about to be destroyed for no good reason. 

I didn’t want that to happen. 

I’m glad it didn’t. 

5 years later, the Jena 6 move on

By MARY FOSTER, Associated Press – Aug 25, 2011

JENA, La. (AP) — One wants to be a lawyer. One, a soldier. Another, a sports agent. Some don’t care to talk about their future or that part of their past, five years ago, when they faced up to 40 years in prison in the beating of a white classmate, an episode that sparked the biggest civil rights demonstration the nation had seen in years.

The “Jena Six” are ready to move on.

So is the young man who was beaten.

So is the town of Jena.

“This is a nice little town, it’s really like Mayberry,” said Jena mayor Murphy McMillin. “We were never portrayed accurately during all that. But now we’re past it and focused on the future.”

It was on Aug. 30, 2006, that a black student asked if he could sit under a tree on campus or if it was for white students only. The next morning there were three nooses hanging in the tree. The tension culminated Dec. 4, when Justin Barker was beaten. Six of his black classmates were arrested. Three days later, five of them were charged with attempted murder.

Reed Walters, the LaSalle Parish District Attorney since 1991, said he believes the incident drew the town closer together, including the march. Thousands of chanting demonstrators filled the streets that September day, led by figures such as the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. At the time, Jena (pronounced JEE’-nuh) was left to fend off accusations of racism in the justice system — no one was charged for hanging the nooses, and protesters derided the attempted murder charges as excessive. The charges were later reduced.

“The world had been told that Jena was such an evil place,” Walters said. “I think during that march people saw that was not true.”

Members of the Jena Six are determined to move away — and learn — from their controversial pasts. They say they want to be something one day: A sports agent, a lawyer, a military man. Those interviewed said they don’t run into problems when they return to Jena to visit family.

“I’ve tried to wash those memories out of the back of my head,” said Jessie Ray Beard, who was 14 when he was arrested in the beating. “I have other things to concentrate on.”

Beard’s attorney’s arranged for him to stay with another attorney’s family in New York about three and a half years ago and attend the Canterbury School, a private boarding school in Connecticut.

“That first year was very, very hard for him,” said Alan Howard, the attorney with whom Beard lives.

“It took a tremendous effort on his part to make it.”

Beard has since gone on to Hofstra, where he earned an academic scholarship, is pursuing legal studies and business, and plays on the lacrosse team. He plans to go to grad school on the west coast and eventually work as a sports agent.

Robert Bailey Jr., who graduated from high school in Georgia, plays wide receiver at Grambling and is a member of the ROTC. After he graduates in 2013, he hopes to pursue a military career.

“Because of what happened, I grew up. I learned things too, like doing things the right way,” Bailey said.

Mychal Bell, who was 16 at the time, was the only defendant to go to trial. He was convicted, but that decision was set aside. He ultimately pleaded guilty to a second-degree battery charge and received an 18-month sentence. The other five accepted a plea deal that gave them seven days probation, a $500 fine and court costs.

Bell, a highly recruited football player before the beating, is a cornerback on Southern University’s team. His attorney said it was best if he wasn’t interviewed.

“Every time there’s something in the press about him, he gets a lot of hate mail,” said Bell’s attorney, Louis Scott.

Theo Shaw, 21, is now studying political science and history at University of Louisiana at Monroe and plans to go to law school. He has done several internships in the field, he said, including one with the Innocence Project, a national nonprofit that works to free wrongfully convicted prisoners. His time in jail sparked his interest in law — he said he spent a lot of time reading up on the subject so he could file court papers.

“I do think it was a situation that helped me to develop character and be a better person,” Shaw said. “But beyond that, I don’t think of it much anymore.”

Bryant Purvis is enrolled at Southeastern Louisiana. Carwin Jones did not return calls left with his father for comment.

The victim, Justin Barker, is the only one who still lives in Jena. Now 22, he’s an inconspicuous young man: thin, with soft brown hair and large eyes, a Southerner raised to say “Yes, ma’am” and “Yes, sir” and stay quiet around strangers. So he’s always surprised when someone asks if he’s “that” Justin Barker, he told The Associated Press in his first media interview since the beating.

“That’s the only time that whole thing comes up,” Barker said, sitting in the dining area of his tidy new trailer. These days he works on an oil rig in Texas — seven days on, seven off — and helps his father cut timber when he’s home. He recently divorced the woman who was his girlfriend when he was beaten.

The defendants initially claimed Barker had made a racial slur, prompting the attack. But they admitted that was untrue as part of the plea deal. As for Barker, all he remembers is this: He walked out of the gym and turned left to avoid a crowd when something hit him.

“I don’t know why they attacked me,” he said. “No one ever told me, and I don’t have a clue until this day.”

He woke up in the emergency room, his right eye swollen shut and his jaw fractured. Both took months to heal, and he still deals with TMJ — a popping in the joint where the jaw connects to the skull. He sued the defendants and was awarded $22,000 for medical bills and $7,000 in damages. Now he says he’s put it all behind him.

“I’m just trying to get on with my life,” Barker said. “I have put all that behind me.”

Barker is one of the few young people that stay in town, as most leave to find jobs, said McMillin. These days, town officials are focused on ensuring there is a high quality of life in Jena. For the mayor, the term “Jena Six” has taken on new meaning.

“There is a new Jena Six — the mayor and the five city councilmen,” McMillin said.

The town’s seven black churches make a point of getting together and interacting with folks who attend white churches, “and we have it on a regular basis,” said the Rev. Jimmy Young, 70, pastor of L&A Baptist Church. Young is black.

Walters, the district attorney, won’t talk about the case. But he does have one regret.

“I wish I had been able to explain things better,” he said. “I don’t think I did a very good job of that.”

One thought on “Jena, Louisiana five years on

  1. I hope the Churches do well in establishing fellowship in Jena. I don’t know if it will help with people there who are grown up now. I will never forget the nice elderly lady on TV talking sincerely about how everybody in the town was so happy, both whites and blacks, before people from the city came there to stir up trouble. Must have been you, Alan. She would have never imagined to ever ask any of the African-Americans in town, who said it was one of the most racist towns you would ever see.

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