For HBCU Students, Jena Is The Civil Rights Movement of Their Generation

JENA, La.

North Carolina Central University law student Quinn Byars had heard all the talk about being part of history for making the trek to Jena, La., with thousands of other protestors Thursday. But college students like Byars believe they’ve made a much bigger statement to the world.

“For our generation it’s so important because we don’t really get the opportunity to come together like this,” says Byars during Thursday’s rally in Jena.  “It gives us an opportunity to come together to make noise and come together on an issue.”

To take a stand against injustice, specifically the excessive charges leveled against the six young Black male high school students in the small Louisiana town for injuries suffered by a White male student in a school fight, is what brought thousands to town to demand justice for the group dubbed the “Jena 6.”

Jena is a rural, central Louisiana town of nearly 3,000 residents (85 percent White) surrounded by acres of cotton fields and small two-lane highways. It’s also a town that historically has had tense race relations, where Whites live on their side of town and Blacks on theirs. Rarely do the two meet.

“Yeah, it’s kinda divided,” says Roy Beard, a Black, 42-year-old native of Jena.  “That’s the way it’s always been. We’ve gone to school together, but after that, we go our separate ways. But the younger generation, there is a big change in them for the bad.  If it wasn’t bad, why would you hang nooses from the tree?”

The tree is what became the center of controversy at Jena High. Last year a Black freshman asked the school’s principal if he could sit under a tree on campus where historically only Whites congregated.  Black students generally hung out in some bleachers at the school.  Days after the principal said the Black student could sit anywhere he wanted, three nooses were hung from the tree. 

The White students who hung the nooses were eventually suspended for three days and the noose issue labeled a prank, upsetting Black students and Jena’s Black community.

What followed were a series of race-based fights between Black and White students that culminated into the Jena 6 fight. District Attorney Reed Walters first charged all six Black youth with attempted murder for beating the White student, Justin Barker. Those charges were reduced to second degree battery and conspiracy which carries a jail sentence of up to 22 years in jail.  Mychal Bell, the only Jena 6 defendant tried so far in the case, was found guilty after being tried as an adult. But a Louisiana appeals court ruled Bell, who is still in jail, shouldn’t have been tried as an adult and threw out the conviction. 

The other defendants are awaiting their trials.

Students from historically Black colleges and universities held marches and rallies on their campuses days prior to coming to Jena. In Atlanta Wednesday, hundreds of students from Morehouse College, Clark Atlanta University and Spelman College marched through busy, lunch-time, downtown Atlanta traffic to voice their displeasure for the alleged injustice in Jena.

But while they rode down to Jena the next night, they echoed the concern of college students all over who seem to believe the Jena issue is the spark they needed for their own movement — sort of their own Montgomery bus boycott.

“Jena was a vehicle, basically,” says Morehouse senior Reginald McKinley.  McKinley led the group of 110 Atlanta University Center students who jumped on two buses to ride deep into the night to Jena, march and protest fervently and then immediately return to Atlanta to make classes this morning.  The trip was a grueling 24-hour odyssey filled with impromptu discussion between students about activism.

“We needed something that would wake everyone up,” McKinley says. “Jena happened to be there.”

Students crowded buses on campuses all across the country to take their stands in Jena.  For example, 100 students at Philander Smith College in Arkansas — nearly 20 percent of the school’s entire student body of 560 — made the trek to Louisiana.

This, many said, became their opportunity to be part of a human rights movement.

“I think this has the potential to be (this generation’s Montgomery bus boycott), if it’s followed up correctly,” says Howard University junior Michael Browne during Thursday’s rally in Jena.  “If we can go back and educate those students and people who couldn’t come down here, well, that’s how movements occur.”

Browne, like students all over Jena Thursday, were wearing some form of t-shirts reading “Free the Jena 6.”  Nearly all were wearing something Black as a sign of unity.

Louisiana state troopers lined the streets, keeping watch over things. Counter protestors were nowhere to be found, though there was at least one “incident” where a car full of White passengers, flashed an obscene gesture towards a bus load of Black students leaving Jena.

Students and others marched through Jena’s streets singing songs and chanting things like “I am the Jena 6.”  Onlookers, mostly Black, cheered and took pictures.  Some Whites sat in lawn chairs in their yards, quietly watching.  Many had left town for the day, putting up ropes and “no trespassing” signs around their homes. Most merchants had closed their businesses for the day.

“They were scared of all of this,” says Beard.

Broderick McBride, a freshman at Morehouse, loudly led the singing and chanting of scores of people marching down La. 127 into downtown Jena, where most buildings are less than two stories tall.

“This march is bigger than the Jena 6,” says McBride. “This is the start of a movement that will liberate our people.”

Spelman College freshman Markieta Woods summed it up well.

“We want them to see that our generation isn’t stagnant and we do want to make change,” she says, just before the Rev. Jesse Jackson took the stand to pump up the marchers heading to Jena.  “We do want to make change.”

– ADD SEYMOUR JR.

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