Scroll To Top

What's in the
Jena 6 Case for Us?

What's in the
Jena 6 Case for Us?


Standing up for the Jena 6, the six African-American high-school students in Louisiana who have been racially discriminated against by white authorities, is important for anyone who's suffered prejudice, including LGBT people

On Thursday, I too will be in Jena, La., to stand with the thousands of national civil rights activists and other people coming together in the name of justice and fairness. This rural town of 3,000 residents in central Louisiana has captured national and international attention since long-simmering racial tensions exploded in a series of violent confrontations between African-American and white teenagers at Jena High School. The charged situation comes to a boil today.

The tragic story begins last year, when a freshman at the high school, an African-American, asked the school's principal during a school assembly if African-American students had permission to sit underneath the "white tree," a shady oak on school grounds where white students frequently congregated. The principal replied that the African-American students could sit wherever they wanted. However, the next day, three nooses -- in the school's colors, no less -- were found dangling from the tree, making an obvious reference to our country's long history of racial intimidation through heinous lynchings.

Recognizing the seriousness of this incident, the school's principal expelled the white students responsible, only to have his decision overturned by the school board and superintendent, who dismissed the incident as a "prank." The offending students were allowed to return to school and punished only with three days of in-school suspension.

In response to the superintendent's decision, a group of African-American students staged a lunchtime protest on campus, demonstrating their opposition to the school's racial status quo by physically occupying the tree. Then the superintendent called an emergency school assembly, at which the town's law enforcement officials appeared in full uniform and threatened protest leaders.

As tensions mounted, racial fights broke out at the school and off-campus. In one notable incident an African-American student was assaulted and hit with a beer bottle at a party attended mostly by whites. In return, six African-American students beat unconscious the white student who had allegedly taunted the victim at the party. But although the white student was sent to the hospital and released the same day, the six African-American students -- who have come to be known as the "Jena 6" -- were arrested and charged with attempted murder. Five of the six teenagers were charged as adults.

The first student to stand trial, Mychal Bell, a 16-year-old sophomore and school football star, faced felony charges of aggravated assault and conspiracy. Even though Bell faced a possible sentence of 20 years in prison, his court-appointed lawyer called no witnesses in his defense -- and last June, Bell was convicted before a white judge with an all-white jury. Last week, in part because of growing media attention to the case, an appeals court overturned Bell's conviction; however, he still remains behind bars, thanks to a prohibitive bond. Charges for three of the other students have been reduced to aggravated battery.

Before his conviction was overturned, Bell was scheduled to be sentenced today. Now the day has become one for a different kind of action, with some 40,000 people expected to descend on Jena to protest what's happened.

When you consider the details of this case, it's utterly shocking to think that the story of the Jena 6 is taking place now -- that it's not a horror story from 40 years ago. Still, as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people know well enough, the struggle for justice and the equal treatment for all Americans remains an ongoing one.

The real story of the Jena 6 is not just about the dramatic showdown between African-American residents and white authority figures in a small, rural Southern town. It is about how in our country, even today, certain members of our society continue to be subjected to blatant prejudice and denied the assurance of fair and equal treatment by our legal and judicial process.

The story speaks to the real threat of the powerful to use their influence and narrow, discriminatory view of society to further marginalize those whom they consider to be weaker or "other" than themselves. Those blacks. Those gays. The hope is that if "they" would not make a big deal out of the obvious injustices occurring to them and just accept things the way they are -- and, implicitly, are supposed to be -- then the "problems" will just go away and "normal" life will resume. But we know that injustice of any kind, be it in the form of workplace discrimination, hate crimes, or unequal sentencing, is never something that we can stand by and casually accept.

That's why on Thursday the Human Rights Campaign will be in Jena, standing shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with our coalition partners in the civil rights community, calling for the equal treatment for these young victims of discrimination. There is no other place I would rather be than there, showing our support. Together, black, white, straight, LGBT, we will let our voices be heard. The message will be loud: We won't tolerate discrimination anywhere.

Payne is associate director of diversity at the Human Rights Campaign.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Donna Payne