Executive Director Alan Bean wrote this three-part reflection after participating in the September 20th rally for justice in Jena, Louisiana. Alan concludes that a new civil rights movement was gaining traction in Jena on September 20th, 2007. But that movement will look totally different from the spectacle that America saw on CNN.
We’ve broken up this reflection on the September 20th protests into three parts:
Part 1: Premonitions of a Movement | Part 2: Sowing the Wind | Part 3: Looking to the Future
Part 2: Sowing the Wind
After talking to several women from black churches in Dallas, I strolled up to the High School courtyard, where the three nooses had been hung. I recalled that brisk January afternoon when Caseptla Bailey first led me to the tree in the square. “What do you want to see this for?” she asked me.
“Caseptla,” I said, “this tree is going to be famous.”
I had no idea just how famous Jena’s “white tree” would become.
Thousands of protestors were milling around the schoolyard. Everyone had the same question, “Where was the tree before they cut it down?”
I pulled out a copy of the picture I had taken back in January, and led a small group of students to the spot. “It was here?” they asked skeptically. All that remained of the tree was a patch of loamy soil—even the stump had been dug up.
I suddenly became a tour guide to a crowd looking for the famous tree. “No one actually called it a “white tree” I said. “In fact, no one minded too much if a black kid wanderer onto the white side of the schoolyard so long as they wandered back to black side after a few minutes. But it was commonly understood that white students hung out on the tree-end of the courtyard while black students clustered at the opposite end. A sidewalk divided the two groups.
“It wasn’t something we talked about much,” a former Jena High student once told me. “You just hung with your own group. It was just the way things were . . . until we moved out of Jena.”
As I waxed eloquent on the subject of Jena’s regime of de facto segregation, a large crowd gathered around me. “Did the white kid get beat up for hanging the nooses?” someone asked.
The ensuing Q&A session confirmed what I had long suspected—the superficial reporting on this story has left a lot of people confused. Many protesters seemed to believe that black kids beat up white kids for hanging nooses in a tree.
In reality, three months separated the “noose incident” from the assault on Justin Barker.
“This isn’t about the kids,” I told the throng gathered around me. “This is about adults. In particular it is about two public officials: Superintendent Roy Breithaupt and District Attorney Reed Walters. These men could have transformed an ugly incident into a teaching opportunity. Reed and Roy could have said, “I don’t know what you were thinking when you hung these nooses, but to African Americans, a noose hanging from a tree is a symbol of hate and a threat of violence. Racism has no place in Jena or at this high school. There may have been a color line at Jena High School in the past, but those days are gone.”
That should have been the first step. Next, every student, every teacher and every school employee should have been exposed to a thorough history lesson coupled with a ringing reaffirmation of unity and racial equality. Expelling the noose hangers for a day, a semester, or the entire school year would have solved nothing. The student body needed facts and they needed direction.
When you have nooses hanging from a tree in a segregated school yard, you’ve got a crisis on your hands. Is there a color line at Jena High? By attempting to dodge the question, Superintendent Breithaupt preserved the status quo—and in Jena, that meant reinforcing the precedent of a racially divided campus.
When Roy Breithaupt dropped the ball, DA Reed Walters had a chance to pick it up. The noose hangers were given a few days of in-school suspension because, Breithaupt explained, they were simply pulling a juvenile prank. Black football players expressed their outrage by “occupying” the now-infamous tree. Moments later, they were joined by virtually every black student at the high school. The atmosphere was tense. Shoving matches broke out. The police were called and the entire campus was placed on lock-down for the rest of the week.
District Attorney Reed Walters and every member of Jena’s all-white police force were called to a hastily called assembly in the school’s ancient auditorium. White students sat on one side of the aisle; black students on the other. “I can be your best friend or your worst enemy,” Walters said as he waived his pen in the air. “Remember, with a stroke of my pen, I can make your lives disappear.”
Walters has since denied that these words were aimed exclusively at the black students. But white students weren’t protesting the nooses—black students were. Walters had no quarrel with the white kids; he was addressing the black side of the aisle.
The District Attorney has subsequently explained that he felt the noose issue was being blown out of proportion and that the black and white students needed to work things out for themselves.
The implication of Walters’ message was as clear as it was sinister: “The status quo at Jena High School will be maintained, and any student who can’t live with that fact will be punished severely. Nothing is going to change—not in Jena!”
Like Pandora, Reed Walters lifted the lid and released the furies. The Bible warns us that when a nation sows the wind, we reap the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7). Reed Walters sowed the wind; now Walters, and everyone else in Jena, is reaping the whirlwind. The sins of the fathers are being visited upon the children.
From the time Reed Walters waved his pen, white and black students were placed on a collision course that could only end in a train wreck.
As I talked to the throng of protesters at the tree site, I pointed to my old picture. “You see the smoke damage around the windows of the school?” I asked. “That part of the school is gone—it has been demolished.”
The racial violence that flashed through Jena in the wake of the school fire would have been unthinkable without Reed Walters and his pen. In fact, I have always sensed that Jena High School would still be intact (tree and all) if Walters had denounced the nooses instead of issuing threats. The fights, the fire, and the fractured psyche of an entire community lie at the feet of DA Reed Walters and Superintendent Roy Breithaupt.
“But this isn’t just a story about Jena,” I told my audience; “this is a story about America. Young people, especially poor black young people, are being subjected to pressures they can neither understand nor control. They make mistakes. They lash out. And there is always a Reed Walters waiting with his pen at the ready.”
The crowd surrounding me was growing by the minute. People were asking for my card and wanting to know where to send donations to Friends of Justice. Fearing that I was turning into another Jena huckster, I shook a few hands and moved on.