Eighth in a series about Canadians making their mark in the world.
JENA, La. — The highway leading into Jena, La., from the west is a narrow, curvy stretch of blacktop surrounded by towering southern pines that block the horizon. In the morning, with heavy fog pressing tight against the treetops, it is a landscape that can inspire a sense of dread.
It was like that last Jan. 26 when Alan Bean first drove into this little oil and lumber town to investigate reports of a brewing race scandal.
Bean, an unassuming 54- year- old Canadian, arrived here knowing only the sketchy details of the town’s troubles. He’d been told of nooses hanging from a tree, of racial clashes between whites and blacks, and of a local prosecutor’s overzealous pursuit of half a dozen African- American teenagers.
“ I had the sense that I should be scared. Had I done this five or six years ago even, I would have been petrified,” Bean says. “ There was this fog hanging from the trees and covering the road. It really does create an eerie aspect. But I realized I had become good at this. I knew what to do.”
Bean, executive director of the Texasbased Friends of Justice, had been invited to Jena by the parents of six black students in a heap of legal trouble.
In December 2006, LaSalle County district attorney Reed Walters had charged the six teens with attempted murder for beating a white student named Justin Barker.
Bean sensed the adult- court charges were excessive. Although Barker was knocked unconscious, he was discharged from hospital within hours of the assault.
After more than a dozen trips to Jena throughout early 2007, Bean linked the attack on Barker to an incident the previous September, when white students hung nooses from a tree black students had asked permission to sit under.
It would transform the “ Jena Six” from local controversy into an internationally known case that in September spurred the largest civil rights rally in the U. S. since the 1960s.
“ Alan was the first one in Jena. He has been there on the ground, repeatedly, on a shoestring budget, talking to witnesses, talking to families, figuring out what happened,” says Richard Cohen, executive director of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Atlanta. “ Alan is like a human divining rod. He has a nose for injustice, and a talent to bring it to light.”
But the story of how Bean came to uncover the Jena Six story is as long and winding as the roads he has travelled in Louisiana. Born in Calgary in 1953, Bean moved three years later with his family to Yellowknife, where his father was a radio operator for the Department of Transport.
It was there that Bean began hearing his father’s stories about the social gospel of Tommy Douglas, who had taught Sunday school to a young Gordon Bean in Weyburn, Sask.
“ Tommy Douglas was my father’s hero,” Bean says. “ Even though my father was kind of a fundamentalist Baptist, he had a very progressive ‘ help the little guy’ view.”
When the family moved to Edmonton in the early 1960s, one of the first things Bean saw on the family’s new black- andwhite television was Martin Luther King’s speech at the March on Washington. Although not yet a teenager, Bean felt a calling.
“ Even now, I cannot talk about King’s ‘ I Have a Dream’ speech without becoming emotional,” he says.
Determined to emulate Douglas and King, Bean became an ordained Baptist minister and preached in churches from Medicine Hat, Alta., to B. C.
He moved to the U. S. in 1986 with his wife, Nancy, an American, after becoming disillusioned with the Baptist Union of Western Canada. The couple eventually settled in the Texas panhandle town of Tulia, population 5,000, where their lives took the dramatic turn that ultimately led Bean to Jena.
Bean and an associate, Gary Gardner, played key roles in bringing national attention to the 1999 arrests in Tulia of 46 men — 39 of them black — in a massive cocaine sting. The arrests were made by an undercover cop hailed in the Tulia newspaper for getting the “ scumbags” off the streets.
But what Bean and Gardner discovered was that the undercover detective who broke the case fabricated most of the drug buys, and had himself been arrested on theft charges. No drugs were found on any of the defendants.
In 2003, Texas Gov. Rick Perry pardoned the defendants.
Bean’s work in Tulia drew the attention of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, which in early 2007 urged him to take a closer look at an obscure case stirring emotions in central Louisiana.
Long before civil rights leaders like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson could even pronounce Jena — it’s JEENA — Bean spent hours in the county courthouse, reading witness statements and interviewing the jailed teens.
The result of Bean’s investigation was a 5,000- word narrative that concluded Justin Barker’s beating was the violent climax of a months- long conflict that began with the noose incident.
More significantly, Bean pointed to prosecutor Walters as a central antagonist. Walters had warned students at a school assembly that he could ruin their lives “ with a stroke of a pen,” a threat Bean says the prosecutor carried out by unnecessarily charging the Jena Six with attempted murder.
“ We never wanted to say, in Tulia or in Jena, that these people were necessarily guilty or innocent,” Bean says in an interview at his Texas home. “ The question is, are they getting equal justice? Are they being railroaded?”