An American Baptist pastor in Arlington, Texas, is credited with bringing international attention to a civil-rights case in a small Louisiana town known worldwide as the Jena 6.
Thousands of activists were expected to descend on the rural community of 3,000 people–about 350 of whom are black–this Thursday to protest the racially charged sentencing of a black teenager convicted of a felony in the beating of a white student.
On Friday a state appeals court vacated the second-degree-battery conviction of 17-year-old Mychal Bell, ruling that the youth was improperly tried as an adult in a case that raised allegations of racial injustice.
The sudden reversal left plans for this week’s protest caravan in limbo. But Alan Bean, founder and director of Friends of Justice, a faith-based organization that works on criminal-justice reform, told the Chicago Tribune he expected the reversal of Bell’s conviction to transform the planned protest into a celebration of the power of public opinion.
Bean, an American Baptist minister who formed Friends of Justice in response to an infamous 1999 drug sting in Tulia, Texas, that targeted black males, was first to bring the Jena 6 case to light. He visited the town and assembled the now-famous time-line of events that became the outline for media reports around the world.
The story begins Thursday, Aug. 31, 2006, when a small group of black students asked if they could sit under a tree on the traditionally white side of the Jena High School square and were informed by the vice principal they could sit wherever they pleased.
The next day, three nooses colored black and gold–the school colors–were found hanging from the tree, prompting outrage among black parents who viewed it as a hate crime and act of intimidation.
When black students staged an impromptu protest under the tree a week later, the local district attorney warned additional unrest would be treated as criminal activity. “I can make your lives disappear with a stroke of my pen,” DA Reed Walters was quoted as saying, a reference widely interpreted as a threat to file charges that carry a maximum sentence of life in prison.
School officials declined to expel the three white boys responsible for hanging the nooses, calling it a “silly prank” punished by a few days of in-school suspension. That set off a number of interracial altercations over the course of a semester and a suspicious fire that destroyed the high school’s academic wing.
Shortly after lunch hour on Monday, Dec. 4, 2006, a fight between a white student and black student reportedly ended with the white student being knocked to the floor. Reports varied about what actually took place, but within six hours six black students were arrested and charged with aggravated battery.
The prosecutor later upped the charge to attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit second-degree murder–crimes carrying a maximum sentence of life in prison–describing Bell’s tennis shoe as a lethal weapon.
Civil-rights leaders including Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III joined the movement to protest what many viewed as a microcosm of racial injustice in America.
Bean, who is white, says in theory all defendants in America are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but in reality the burden of proof is closely tied to the perceived social status of the defendant.
Since the 1980s, according to Friends of Justice, poor people of color have been threatened by a growing risk of wrongful arrest and conviction. The war on drugs and over-reliance on incarceration, Bean says, have created a system of race and class inequality in America’s justice system that he calls the New Jim Crow.
“The Civil Rights movement has significantly increased the due-process protections for people of color who have ascended the social ladder,” says the Friends of Justice Web site. “Tragically, however, the threat of wrongful conviction is much higher for poor people of color at the dawn of the 21rst century than it was in the darkest days of the Jim Crow period.”
Friends of Justice say the American prison population has roughly quadrupled since 1980, largely in response to a ramped-up war on drugs. Since it was impossible to increase the size of the judicial system to keep up with the building of new prisons, the group says, legal mechanisms were adopted to speed up the conviction process.
An Urban League study found that African-American men are three times more likely than white men to face jail once they have been arrested in the United States. About one quarter of African-Americans arrested in 2005 ended up in jail, compared to 8.3 percent of white men. African-American men receive jail sentences on average 15 percent longer than white men convicted of the same crime.
American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. General Secretary Roy Medley and National Ministries Executive Director Aidsand Wright-Riggins issued an action alert Sept. 17 calling on American Baptists to stand up for the Jena 6.
After Friday’s vacating of Bell’s conviction, the two leaders urged American Baptists to continue to follow the case. Charges still remain against five other young men, they said, and the prosecutor has threatened to re-file charges against Bell.
“As long as such obviously discriminatory acts of injustice rooted in racial inequality continue in our country we must all mourn deeply the continuing effects of America’s original sin–slavery,” Medley and Wright-Riggins said in a statement.
“Evangelical Christians especially, having recently been stirred in conscience by the anniversary of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ and the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, cannot fail in concrete ways to show an ongoing commitment to equal justice for all and to guarantee its implementation for every citizen, regardless of color or national origin, in every court in the land,” they said.
An online petition of support for the Jena 6 collected more than 220,000 signatures, about 88 percent toward a goal of $250,000. A defense fund has also been established for the Jena 6.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.