Young Black Males Target of Small-Town Racism
By Jesse Muhammad
Staff Writer Final Call
JENA, La. (FinalCall.com) – Marcus Jones, the father of 16-year-old Jena High School football star Mychal Bell, pulls out a box full of letters from countless major colleges and universities in America who are trying to recruit his son. Mr. Jones, with hurt in his voice, says “He had so much going for him. My son is innocent and they have done him wrong.”
An all-white jury convicted Mr. Bell of two felonies-aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated battery-and faces up to 22 years in prison when he is sentenced on July 31st. Five other young Black males are also awaiting their day in court for alleged attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit second-degree murder charges evolving from a school fight: Robert Bailey, 17; Theo Shaw, 17; Carwin Jones, 18; Bryant Purvis, 17; and Jesse Beard, 15.
Together, this group has come to be known as the “Jena 6.”
“This town has always had a history of racism towards the Black man,” said Mr. Jones to The Final Call. “I am going to continue to fight for justice for my son.”
Jena, a small town still considered segregated in rural Louisiana, is the largest in LaSalle Parish with a population of nearly 3,000. Of that number, 85 percent are White, while there are only 350 Blacks in the entire area.
The trouble surrounding this case began in September 2006. At Jena High School, Black and Whites sit separately from one another outside during their school breaks-Whites under the shaded “White tree,” and Blacks on worn-out benches. One day, Black students asked permission from a school official to sit under the “White tree,” and the official told them to sit wherever they wanted, so the Black students did. The following day, three nooses were seen hanging from the “White tree,” which upset the Black students who make up only 20 percent of the school’s population.
The school principal found the three White students responsible and advised that they were to be expelled from school permanently. The White superintendent of LaSalle Parish Schools, Roy Breithaupt, overturned the principal’s decision and instead gave the White students a three-day suspension. In statements made to the media, Superintendent Breithaupt said “Adolescents play pranks. I don’t think it was a threat against anybody.” Black parents, students and residents disagreed and became upset.
“That’s a federal hate crime when those White students hung up those nooses. I don’t care what anybody says,” Mr. Jones told The Final Call. “A three-day suspension was a slap in the face of us as Blacks in this town.”
(top) The “White tree” at Jena High School where only White students convened before a student sat under it in September 2006. (bottom) The section where Black students convened during school breaks.
Students began to voice their disgust and protest against the “slap on the wrist” the three White students received for what many are calling a hate crime. According to the parents of the Jena 6 and testimony given in Mr. Bell’s trial, White District Attorney Reed Walters then visited Jena High School to address a school assembly, making remarks directed at the Black students that if they didn’t stop making a fuss about this “innocent prank,” he could take their lives away with the stroke of his pen. As a result of a fire that burned down the main building where classes are held. Jena High School on November 30, 2006, Whites in the community started to blame the Blacks students of the school for the cause of the fire.
But the racial tensions at the school would spill over into the community and erupt into a series of incidents that led to the charges against the Jena 6:
On the night of December 1, 2006, Robert Bailey and his friends went to a party at Jena Fair Barn. Once inside the party, Robert was approached by a White male named Justin Sloan who asked him, “Is your name Robert Bailey?” When Robert said yes, Mr. Sloan, along with his sister Jessie, began to hit Robert, and from there, he was also attacked by several other White men before his own friends came to assist him in the brawl.
According to Robert’s mother, Caseptla Bailey, the police who came on the scene told the Black youth that they need to get back to their side of town. The next day, on December 2nd, Robert and two of his friends were at the local Gotta-Go convenience store. They spotted Matt Windham, one of the White males who attacked Robert the previous night. An altercation started and Mr. Windham ran to his truck and pulled out a sawed-off shotgun, which Robert was able to wrestle away from him. The fight ensued and eventually all involved left the scene running.
Two days later, on December 4th at Jena High School, a White male student by the name of Justin Barker had been allegedly making racial taunts at the Blacks, which included calling them “n–s” and expressing support for the noose hanging, as well as the attack made on Robert Bailey at Fair Barn. Right outside the school auditorium, Mr. Barker was suddenly knocked down, punched, beaten and kicked by Black students. According to interviews with The Final Call, parents of the Jena 6 stated that school officials randomly pointed out White students to write statements describing what they saw, as well as identify what Black students were involved in the fight or were just standing around during the fight. Moments later, after several statements were collected, six Black males were taken out of their classes, arrested and charged.
Many of the Jena 6 remained in jail for several months due to the high bails set between $70,000-$140,000 on them. All are talented athletes with what their families called “bright futures.”
“We had to put up property to bail out my son,” stated Ms. Bailey. “My son is innocent. This is a disgrace and it only manifested the racism that has always existed in this town and this country. They are attacking our young Black males so we have to fight.”
Tina Jones, the mother of Bryant Purvis, agreed. “My son was not involved in this fight. This is pure racism.”
Bell’s family was unable to bail him out and his father believed that is the reason his son’s case went to trial so quickly. A Black court-appointed attorney, Blaine Williams, represented Mr. Bell, pressuring him to plead guilty, but Mr. Bell refused. His attorney then gathered a list of proposed witnesses which included his father and mother, Michelle Bell. The judge put a gag order on all witnesses in the case and refused to allow his parents to be present in the courtroom during the trial because they were potential witnesses although the victim, who was a witness, was allowed to stay inside the entire time.
When Mr. Bell’s father asked the defense lawyer to appeal the gag order so they can be inside the courtroom with their son, the lawyer replied, “The best thing for you to do is to get the hell out of my face.”
“At that point, I smelled a rat and I knew my son was being set up,” stated Mr. Jones to The Final Call. He also shared that the jury was all White, and that members of the jury were friends with the district attorney as well as family members with the victim. The prosecution brought forth 17 witnesses of whom many stated that they did not see Mr. Bell hit Mr. Barker. The victim himself even testified that he did not know if Mr. Bell hit him or not. The defense lawyer did not call any witnesses and rested his case. After three hours of deliberation, Mr. Bell was convicted and is currently awaiting sentencing.
Members of the Houston Millions More Movement Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and the Muhammad’s Mosque No. 45 Fruit of Islam visited the families of the Jena 6 on July 14th to conduct a fact-finding mission, along with The Final Call.
“Our mission to Jena made clear to me that the “Old South” is not so old that it is not without a pulse and heartbeat,” stated Deric Muhammad, Houston MOJ spokesman. “The U.S. Congress and Black America doesn’t have to strain its eyes toward Darfur or South Africa to see apartheid and/or genocide. We need look no further than Jena, Louisiana.”
The Black residents have been mobilizing the last few months with protests, organizing meetings, developed a NAACP branch headed by Secretary Catrina Wallace and created the Jena 6 Defense Fund Committee. They are planning a major protest on the steps of the Jena courthouse on the day of Mr. Bell’s sentencing and are calling on everyone to support.
(For more information on the Mychal Bell’s case call Marcus Jones at (318) 316-1486. People interested in supporting the Jena 6 Defense Fund: Jena 6 Defense Committee can write to P.O. Box 2798, Jena, LA 71342, or e-mail email@example.com. MMM LOCs interested in supporting the July 31st protest please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)
c Copyright 2007 FCN Publishing, FinalCall.com (Permission granted to reprint)
When you are of African ancestry in America, you are at war on many fronts. And on all of these fronts, be they health, criminal justice, education, jobs, homelessness, community groups and more, there are passionate people fighting the good fight and so involved in their own struggle that their paths seldom cross.