Thousands of marchers gathered in Jena, Louisiana on Thursday to rally support for Mychal Bell, one of six black students initially charged with attempted murder for the beating of a white classmate. Charges were eventually dropped against five of the teens, while Bell still sits behind bars awaiting trial. I traveled to Jena with my crew from NSU22 to cover the march.
They came from all corners of the country, marching in step behind a unified voice. Almost 50 thousand people rallied around equal justice for the Jena Six. The tension branched from a tree at Jena High School, where normally only white students could sit under its shade. When black students spoke out, nooses were found hanging from the branches. White students responsible for the act were punished by school administrators, while six black students faced felony assault charges for beating up a white classmate over the incident.
Ray Hodge, a teacher at Jena High, helped plant the tree. He said he’s disappointed at what it came to represent. “It’s cast us as a bunch of ignorant, racist bumpkins that don’t know anything. And I’m going to say this: That is about as far from the truth as you can get.”
A year ago at the height of the racial tensions in Jena, the high school was torched by an unknown person. Many in the community are hoping that Thursday’s rally, paired with the physical rebuilding of the high school help mend the racial fences dividing the little town.
Tiffany Mitchell, a resident of Jena, said she believes the media has cast an unfair image of the town. “Not everybody here is racist and we’re standing outside to prove that. There’s been a lot of people come by us and laugh at our signs and all that, but we’re still here.”
But some marchers like Michael Peranteau said they wonder if the rally will actually make a difference. “We all leave tomorrow and everything goes back to the way it was. They play on separate sports fields…there’s so much segregation in this town it’s pretty unbelievable.”
Rose Fitts traveled from Birmingham, where she said many of the same racial problems exist. She said the solution to the problem lies with individual residents. “If they are ready for a change, a change can be made. If they keep up in keeping positive and try to get along together, then yes it can work.”
At the end of the day, as marchers packed up to head home, many agreed that Jena, Louisiana is only the first of many stops on their march for racial equality.
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