A few thoughts on Jena incident

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 26, 2007

To The Editor:

Last week, my fiancee, Berry Strong, and I traveled to Jena, La., to participate in the widely publicized protest concerning the criminal prosecution of the six black high school students. There are a few thoughts I would like to share with you that have not been touched upon by the extensive news coverage of this event.

At the outset, I would like to briefly set forth a few of my professional experiences that allow me to reach the conclusion whereof I speak. As some of you know, I was the first student sit-inner at a racially segregated lunch counter resulting in my arrest on Dec. 18, 1958.

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The successful appeal of my trespass conviction caused the “Freedom Riders.” to organize and come south. When I began my practice in Selma, long before there was

a legal aid to the poor program or paid criminal defense for the poor, I brought other lawyers to this city to represent poor people without any cost. I have served as attorney in a major school desegregation case, successfully represented Stokley Carmichael in the only case involving violence in this country arising from the use of the slogan, “Burn, Baby, Burn” and successfully represented a white Mississippian in an employment case against former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld when he headed another federal agency.

We went to Jena because we were concerned with the extreme injustice visited upon the six youth and their families.

Apparently in an effort to racially integrate the schools, the black high school was closed and the students assigned to the previously all white school. Many of the white students believed the blacks were invading their school. This idea of ownership was symbolized in the claim of some white students that they had an exclusive right to sit under the oak tree and for two decades they had maintained an exclusive enjoyment of the shade of that tree.

The following occurrences significantly reflect upon the lack of impartiality of the district attorney and the presiding judge:

& Prior to the hangman’s nooses incident, a young white man was at a service station where he became “suspicious” of three black youths. He took a shotgun from his truck and confronted them and they took his gun away. While they were not guilty of any offense, they were arrested and prosecuted for stealing the shotgun and other felony charges.

& During the initial unrest about the hangman’s nooses incident, District Attorney J. Reed Walker told an audience of students that he could “end their life” with his pen.

& While no criminal charges were brought against the three white students who placed the hangman’s nooses on the tree, they were suspended by the school principal for violating school policy but reinstated by the Board of Education.

& The district attorney is a member of the board of education.

& The beating incident was a culmination of racial taunts and confrontations some of which involved the white youth who was attacked.

& Although the conviction of Mychal Bell was overturned and the case returned to juvenile court for prosecution, a few days after the march the judge heard two motions: a) to recuse himself from the case of all defendants and, b) to release Bell on bond. He denied both.

One should distinguish between racial prejudice and racism. The two are not the same although today they appear to be synonymous. Racial prejudice means to prejudge a person based on his race. Racism is to make some decision affecting a person solely because of one’s race. The racist must be in some position to make such decision. The people in the Jena community may be prejudiced but the district attorney and judge are racist.

However, what has happened in this small Louisiana town, whose population is 10 times less than Selma’s, is the age-old story of the exercise of power to maintain some form of a racial position. In this case to keep some semblance of “white superiority.” The protesters are demanding a share of this power through the appeal process, a request for federal judicial intervention and an appeal to the court of public opinion.

Bruce Carver Boynton