They cut down the "white tree" at Jena High School last month -- about a year too late. On Thursday, a mass civil rights march will take place in Jena, La., demanding justice for the Jena Six -- the six young men unjustly charged with felonies, jailed on prohibitive bonds and facing years in prison. As we march for the Jena Six, we will protest a racially biased U.S. criminal justice system that is creating explosive conditions across this country.
Jena, La., was Klan country, and racial divides still run deep. At Jena High School, there was a "white tree" where it was known only white kids could sit. Blacks and whites sat separately in the auditorium. Last year, at the beginning of school, a freshman asked the principal if blacks could sit under the "white tree." The principal said they could sit anywhere they wanted. The next day, three nooses -- in school colors -- were hung from the ''white tree." In the South, a noose is not a laughing matter. This is a hate crime: a direct racial threat in a region with a terrible history of hanging.
The principal took it seriously and expelled the white students responsible. The school board and superintendent overruled him, dismissing it as a "prank," reducing the expulsions to three-day, in-school "suspensions." Racial tensions rose. A sit-in took place, followed by a series of fights. Then a white youth, apparently taunting an African American who had been beaten, was thrown to the ground and kicked. He went to the hospital, but was released that night and attended the school's "ring ceremony."
The prosecutor had six black teenagers arrested and charged with attempted murder. The first, Mychal Bell, a 16-year-old sophomore star on the school football team, was tried as an adult for aggravated assault and conspiracy, both felonies. He was tried before a white judge with an all-white jury. He had only a court-appointed counsel who called no witnesses. The prosecutor argued that the gym shoes on his feet constituted a "deadly weapon." He was convicted, jailed with prohibitive bond and faced 20 years in prison.
This month, the appellate court ruled that he should not have been tried as an adult. The prosecutor has appealed that ruling. And astonishingly, Bell remains in jail, a fact that intensifies the struggle around the nation to free the Jena 6 and will no doubt swell the crowds at Thursday's demonstration.
Across this country, there are two justice systems -- one for blacks and one for whites. Black (and Latino) young men are not more likely to commit crimes than whites. But they are more likely to be stopped by police, more likely to be arrested if stopped, more likely to be charged if arrested, more likely to be jailed if convicted, more likely to be charged with felonies, and more likely to be tried and imprisoned as adults.
One of every eight young black men in his 20s is in jail or prison on any given day. This isn't just a Southern problem. A study of five states in the Northwest and Midwest showed that blacks are incarcerated at 10 times the rate of whites.
Mass incarceration of African Americans, mostly for nonviolent crimes, is poisonous and destructive. Today, according to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, bans on ex-felons voting is the "biggest impediment to voting since the poll tax," with more than 5 million people of color losing their right to vote. Thursday in Jena, the protest will begin. But it won't end there. This situation is explosive -- not only in Jena but across the country.
Jesse Jackson can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2007 The Chicago Sun Times