James Rucker started receiving e-mails about racial tension in Jena, La., in June. He was skeptical at first; Color of Change, his 2-year-old online activist organization, hears about many incidents alleging racial injustice.
If the San Francisco organization was going to be the "black MoveOn," as former MoveOn.org organizer Rucker envisioned it, Color of Change would have to champion stories of the black experience that had universal appeal. In early July, he visited the 3,000-person Louisiana town, and met with families of five of the Jena Six - teenagers charged in the beating of a white classmate.
The story of "everyday racism" that Rucker found not only resonated with the organization's then-100,000 members - who have raised $170,000 for the teens' defense fund over the past two months - but inspired Color of Change members to spread the story that most of the white-dominated mainstream media had passed over. In doing so, it has tripled its membership.
As part of a loose coalition of bloggers, black radio hosts and activists that helped rally 20,000 people to demonstrate in Jena this week, Color of Change is bridging the gap between civil rights activists and the predominantly white liberal blogosphere and mainstream media.
In taking on racially charged topics like Jena, however, the organization has been criticized "with blowing things out of proportion," as conservative African American commentator Mychal Massie described it, and being unfair in another campaign where Color of Change criticized black leaders who wanted to join with Fox News to sponsor a Democratic presidential debate.
"They and some of the other (black online activists and bloggers) are reaching a demographic of 16- to 45-year-olds that no longer have a relationship with black newspapers," said Ben Jealous, former executive director of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, an organization of more than 200 black-owned community weeklies and other publications.
"And they are taking over the role that the black press has traditionally held: publicizing injustices and rallying public sentiment against them," Jealous said.
"Color of Change has been critical in elevating the Jena story to national and international prominence," said Bill Quigley, a professor of law at Loyola University in New Orleans who has championed and written about the teens' case.
What Rucker found in Jena resonated with him. The 38-year-old was born and raised in Seaside in Monterey County, the son of a high school guidance counselor and a school librarian. While he grew up in a town that was then about a third African American, he attended mostly white parochial and private schools before attending Stanford University. Balding with dreadlocks, he has always been a black man who straddled the white and black worlds.
"I knew kids in my neighborhood who were much smarter than me but who didn't have the same opportunities I did for whatever reason," Rucker said. "That's a lot like the kids I saw in Jena."
He left college after his sophomore year to begin a startup that created software for radio stations. It tanked, as the product was designed for a very small market. "We didn't do a lot of market research," Rucker said, and laughed.
He returned to get his degree and attempted a couple of other startups after he graduated, but none stuck. His goal was to strike it rich enough so he could quit the tech life at 30 and devote his life to organizing around causes he believed in. Instead, he did technology consulting until he met Wes Boyd, co-founder of the liberal online hub MoveOn, in early 2003 in San Francisco.
MoveOn co-founder Joan Blades said MoveOn hired Rucker because he personified the "geek organizer" type: tech-savvy folks who are passionate about issues and politics - but not in a Washington, D.C., business-as-usual kind of way.
Rucker enjoyed the work, but he and MoveOn's leaders struggled with how to bring more people of color to its campaigns. They talked about spinning off an organization, but Rucker knew it would have to be an independent, black-led group to gain legitimacy among African Americans.
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When Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in August 2005, Rucker saw an issue on which to start that new organization. In mid-September, he and longtime environmental and human rights attorney Van Jones started Color of Change - housing it in Rucker's Mission District home, where the five-person operation continues to be funded by Rucker and his wife.
Color of Change hasn't been shy about publicly critiquing black leaders. In March, it was at the front of an effort to persuade the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, a nonprofit organization that trains minority candidates and does other outreach, not to co-sponsor a presidential debate with Fox News. Why? Color of Change believed that Fox wasn't always fair in its coverage of African American issues and personalities, a charge the network denied.
After several top Democratic candidates dropped out of the debate, it was postponed indefinitely.
While one congressional staffer acknowledged the growing power of African American online activists like Color of Change, she said it was "unfair" of them to encourage their supporters to rail against caucus members for "legitimizing" Fox. Rucker said that some members of the caucus sit on the board of the institute.
It is fine for groups to disagree, but "they're not being fair," said Keiana Barrett, a communications staffer for the Congressional Black Caucus.
"The thing is," Rucker said, "black folks want to believe in black institutions. We were trying to hold people accountable. Because if black people don't think those organizations have legitimacy, then white folks certainly won't. And then we will have lost an opportunity we have to make change."
One black conservative says Color of Change is picking the wrong fight in Jena by "overblowing" Rucker's contention that the case recalls "unequal justice" of the Jim Crow South.
In the Jena case, six black teenagers face charges in connection with a beating of a white classmate in December. Five teenagers were initially charged with second-degree attempted murder, even though the student - who suffered multiple facial wounds - was treated and released at a local hospital and attended a class ring ceremony at the school that night. Charges for four were later reduced.
The Jena Six supporters say that incident was merely the climax in a series of back-and-forth racial incidents that started when black students asked permission to sit under the "white tree" on Jena High School's campus - a tree under which only whites had traditionally sat. The next day, nooses were hung from the tree.
The students responsible received an in-school suspension and administrators dismissed it as a prank. A federal prosecutor said he couldn't press hate crime charges against the white students because the situation didn't meet federal criteria: The students were younger than 18, didn't have previous criminal records, and no hate group like the Ku Klux Klan was involved.
"The nooses on the tree is nothing more than a red herring. It is being used to incite and inflame racial discord," said Massie, chairman of the National Leadership of Black Conservatives, a think tank. He wondered what kind of punishment "that Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and this liberal group (Color of Change) think these teens should face" for a six-on-one attack.
Rucker thinks the charges should be dropped. The teens, Rucker said, "have been punished enough by the amount of time they already have spent in adult jail." All but one have been released as of Friday. And if it had truly been a six-on-one attack, he said, the victim "wouldn't have been able to go to a school function that night."
He blamed the town's adults, who didn't adequately punish the students who hung the nooses. Rucker said some of Jena's "adults created a climate where a series of incidents went back and forth between the kids and were allowed to escalate." In several incidents that preceded the beating of the white student, the white perpetrators received lighter or no punishment.
"That's the issue that resonated with our members," he said. "They see that every day in their own lives."
© 2007 The San Francisco Chronicle