By DeWayne Wickham
Jazmen Miller, 23, is driving to Jena, La. The employee of a Washington, D.C., non-profit organization plans to arrive Thursday, in time for a rally expected to draw thousands of people from around the nation to that tiny hamlet.
Miller says she and two female friends will protest the treatment of six black teens, five charged with attempted murder and one charged as a juvenile, following a fight with a white schoolmate in Jena in December. That was one of several racial clashes that occurred over the past year after a black student at Jena’s high school asked whether he could sit under a tree that was the meeting place of whites. The next day, nooses were found hanging from the tree. That’s an unmistakable symbol of racial animus in a state where 335 blacks were lynched by whites from 1882 to 1968, according to the records compiled by Tuskegee University.
(Photo — In Jena, La.: Roy Higgins protests treatment of six black teens in beating case. / By Richard Alan Hannon, AP)
Instead of being charged with a hate crime, the three white students responsible for the nooses were suspended — after the district superintendent overturned the principal’s decision to expel them. But when the six black teens subsequently attacked a white student at the racially tense school, they were expelled and the local prosecutor brought charges against them — though the victim was discharged from the hospital and attended a school ceremony that night.
The charges have since been reduced, and the conviction of one black student was overturned by a Louisiana appeals court. Even so, the passions this case aroused continue to rage among a generation of young blacks that once seemed largely detached from the civil rights struggle.
"It’s important that we go down there to show America that we know that racism is still very alive… and that we are just not going to stand by and do nothing," Miller says of the case known as the Jena Six.
The case reads like a sequel to Harper Lee’s Southern Gothic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. And for many blacks like Miller, prejudice and racism are the central themes of the Jena case, too.
On Thursday, busloads of blacks — many from black colleges — are set to descend upon Jena to rally in support of the six black students. Their legal status is uncertain after an appeals court decided that the only one of them to have been tried should not have been charged as an adult.
This outpouring from young black protesters has been spurred on by black radio celebrities such as Michael Baisden and Joe Madison, whose programs offer up a daily mix of music and talk that moves listeners to action. Baisden will do his nationally syndicated show live from Jena on Thursday.
"I think the key is that young blacks can empathize with the Jena Six because they know any one of them could end up in a similar situation," says Madison, whose syndicated show airs on XM radio. "What’s happening in Jena happens every single day to young black people in courtrooms across this country."
And that, I suspect, is why the Jena Six case has given rise to a new movement of black activism. It is the talk of black barbershops and beauty parlors; it’s being raised in black churches and, most important, has captured the attention of young blacks, many of them college students.
That’s a good thing.
Back in 1903, W.E.B. DuBois said the black race would be saved by "its exceptional men." His gender slight notwithstanding, I agree. The Jena Six case has produced the kind of awakening among young blacks that gave birth to the 1960s freedom rides and sit-in demonstrations. If it can move this generation of young blacks to undertake similar acts of courage, America will be a better place for them and their children.
DeWayne Wickham writes on Tuesdays for USA TODAY.