Baisden, Jackson, Sharpton Lead New Civil Rights Movement
Jena, LA – The national Civil Rights Movement took on a bold new shape; a fresh new face far removed from the movement of the mid 1960s but nonetheless greatly influenced by it as an estimated 50,000 Black-clad, Black Americans trumped here to declare justice for the Jena Six.
Ignited by syndicated media force Michael Baisden, whose efforts on his prime time radio station pierced vast regions throughout the nation and saturated a new generation of young people who wielded their high tech muscle by flooding their friends with e-mails and text messages, a ground swell of new Black Power made its way here.
Baisden’s efforts, joined by familiar hands of the civil rights struggle, namely the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton and a chorus of national Black political figures, led a showcase of unity that flexed the might of a Dr. King march with that of a Black media influence ranging from radio, television and newspapers.
Amongst a sea of Black shirts, we waded our way to the courthouse where they had already started the rally. Hundreds gathered in the small space surrounding the front of the courthouse as speakers let everyone know why we were there.
“Our children are under attack all over the country,” said comedian Ricky Smiley.
Alabama State Senator Bobby Singleton said this case “exposed realism in America” and it is “time to act.”
Another spoke of how we were there to “expose the horror of racism all over this country.” This case was only one example of how racism is still alive and well not just in Jena, but in our various communities.
For each speaker, the crowd cheered in approval after every statement. They led the crowd in chants of “Free the Jena Six” and “Free Mychal Bell,” the only member of the six still incarcerated.
The courthouse entrance was barricaded by several police officers as no one was allowed entry or exit. It was assumed that the District Attorney Reed Walters was somewhere inside and whenever someone mentioned his name, the crowd called for him to come out and face them like he faced the media the day before.
One of the more memorable speeches came from Robert Muhammad, the Southwest Regional Minister of the Nation of Islam who spoke passionately about what God’s justice looks like.
He compared the way the nation furiously responded to Michael Vick’s dog fighting charges, to how they have neglected not only the Jena Six, but Iraq war veterans, the poor, minorities, the unequal treatment of women in the workplace and more recently, the devastation left behind by Katrina in New Orleans.
A more subdued, yet no less powerful moment came later, when Bell’s grandmother, Rosey Simmons, and cousin Tiffany addressed the crowd.
“Thanks be to everyone of you from the bottom of our heart for your support and your prayers,” Simmons said. “We love you, we thank you and God bless you!”
Then Tiffany addressed the crowd, wearing her cousin’s picture on the back of her shirt. As she stood on crutches with tears coming down her face, she spoke a few words about her cousin.
“Mychal is a good man. He doesn’t deserve this,” she said, each word covered with sobs as the crowd applauded and resumed their chants of “Free Mychal Bell!” with renewed vigor.
At the helm of the rally were the combined forces of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Nation of Islam, and the New Black Panther Party (NBPP). More speakers were set to arrive but as the crowd grew, my group felt that we were receiving conflicting messages from the various groups so we decided to walk to Jena High School.
JENA HIGH SCHOOL
I walked with four others. Adrianna Gardner, a recent graduate from the University of LaVerne; Hugh Augustine, a 16-year-old junior at Loyola High School; and Vanda Walker and Blossom?Manuel, two roommates in their mid-20’s.
Walking up and down the dirt roads of Jena, one had the feeling they were in a ghost town, except the ghosts weren’t dead; they were hidden in the houses, somewhere.
The town felt empty. Everything was closed and it was as if everyone vanished and allowed us to come here and see what was left.
For a brief second, despite the noble reasons we were there, I almost felt guilty for walking through someone’s town, someone’s neighborhood. Adrianna remarked that we were almost like tourists instead of activists.
Surrounded by trees, this town looked almost like we expected a small Southern town to look like. It looked like it was in the middle of nowhere yet it had a homey feeling to it.
As far as the eyes could see, people were walking around the town carrying signs and making their own personal statements. They all wanted to get a sense of what this town looked like and separate fact from fiction.
All of these thoughts filled my head as we made our way to Jena High School, the place where it all started. The walk felt like a pilgrimage as if this would be the spot we would find inspiration and enlightenment.
When we arrived, I walked on an open dirt field near the school’s entrance. My eyes darted, looking for some clue as to where the “White tree,” the tree where three nooses were hung after a Black student sat underneath it 12 months ago, used to be.
We walked around the fence and down an open hallway before we saw it: a dirt mound that everyone gathered around. This was where the infamous tree once stood and seeing it, I stood for a moment in silent reflection.
In the Bible, it was man’s involvement with a tree that led to sin entering in the world. Now in 2007, it is man’s involvement with a tree that spread the poison of racism in this town.
All that was left was this dirt mound, not even a stump to signify that a tree once stood there. Someone had placed the African flag in the middle of it, a symbol of reclaiming this land for unity, not hate.
As people milled around, no doubt taking everything in, a small crowd gathered around this White person. It turns out that this was Ray Hodges, a teacher at the high school who had plenty of insight from his own perspective.
But most of the crowd was aggressive in their questioning and as Hodges gamely expressed the nature of his town; it felt like an interrogation instead of a dialogue. They wanted him to speak on behalf of the White community but he stressed that he could only speak for himself.
The crowd persistently asked how ignorance could be fostered in this school and why more good-natured White people were not out in support. He bravely said that the only way ignorance could be cured is with healthy dialogue, which is why he came out.
As they sat on the side, two students from Prairie View A&M tried to put their observations into perspective.
“It felt like my duty to come today because we’re fighting for the things our ancestors fought for, we’re marching like our ancestor marched and we’re making a statement,” said junior Ranelle Bracy.
Describing the mood, junior Brittany Dunn said, “It’s surreal to be here and actually see everything.”
Nevertheless, it was powerful to see people of all ages and races come together in this school, where racial tensions have separated its students.
Viewing the scene and summarizing his view of the rally, Ronnie Teasett of Baton Rouge said with pride. “I’m glad to see my people come together like this.”
THE WAY HOME
As we left the high school and walked the long road back to the buses, we met up with 14-year-old Shabray Simmons, another one of Mychal Bell’s cousins. She shared that Mychal was the type of kid who would only take insults so much before reacting and when he was called the “n”-word the day of the fight; he just couldn’t take it any more.
She stood by herself, a confident, tall young woman no doubt affected by what has happened to her family. As a student at Jena High, she told us that everything was calm before the tree incident but sadly things haven’t been the same since.
To our sadness, she said that even this week, there was a flare-up of the racial tensions. It was disheartening to hear that even as we approached, hatred was still prevalent on both sides.
My final stop was with a White family who were talking to a couple of protestors. One gentleman told the group that he felt the media had overblown the situation and painted Jena in a negative light. However, he did say that the school board should have done more to diffuse the situation.
I spoke to a lady on the porch and she shared with us that while she believes that the Jena Six were wrong for fighting, the students who put up the nooses should have been punished more severely.
She said that the rumors of segregation were somewhat overblown as she pointed out to us where Black families lived up and down the road. Her final proof was that her daughter, a young cheerleader, had a close friend who was Black.
But when Adrianna asked her if the town had held any meetings to air out their concerns, she grew puzzled and said she did not understand what we asked her. I tried to ask her again in another way and she again said she did not understand what we meant.
That confused me greatly as we left. In a small town like this, how was it possible for the mayor or sheriff to not organize a meeting to hear people’s concerns? The teacher Ray Hodges had spoken in favor of
promoting dialogue but it appears that this town has not acted on that premise.
We arrived in Alexandria around 3:00 p.m. for the rally with Michael Baisden and the Rev. Al Sharpton. As was the case earlier that morning, Alexandria, was the sight of rejuvenation as seeing the plaza filled with thousands of Black shirts and supporters brought joy to our hearts.
As he broadcasted live atop the City Hall, Baisden, who has been one of the most visible champions of the Jena Six, said that this was a “life-changing experience” for him. It was through his radio show that the majority of people present—and thousands around the country—first heard about the case and it was his encouraging voice that galvanized folks to drive from all over the country to make their voice heard.
His vibrant energy encouraged young people from all over to become part of this movement and looking at the crowd, there was a youthful presence not usually seen at rallies like these.
And then there was Rev. Sharpton, who praised this as a “self-guided march.” He boldly proclaimed that there were no arrests this day and as he stood by Baisden, it appeared that he was passing the torch to a younger generation ready to take their place alongside their elders.
The mood felt like a celebration for how we had come together. As music blared from the loudspeakers, the community celebrated as one. Yes, we had come from all over but today, we were, as Baisden always put it, family.
As many reflected on this historical march and demonstration, many have asked themselves what did we exactly accomplish, especially of current information.
Mychal Bell is still in jail, with his bail having been denied by the Louisiana 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals while his appeal is still being reviewed.
There has been a White supremacy backlash since the rally. Not even a few hours after the Alexandria rally, two teenagers drove around town with nooses in the back of their truck. A Neo-Nazi website also obtained the addresses and phone numbers of five of the Jena Six’s families and called for them to be lynched.
According to reports, Rev. Jesse Jackson has appealed to the White House for federal intervention in protecting the families, who have also been harassed with phone calls.
Even before we left Jena, I overheard a kid ask, “Is this it?” But for those on the buses, it only encouraged them to keep fighting here in our own back yard.
Dayshawn Dupree, one of the young travelers on our bus, said “I wish we could’ve stayed longer but now we have to stay in touch and keep the movement alive.”
Viveca Pearson, another L.A. bus traveler, echoed the sentiments by saying that if “we can do it in someone else’s backyard, I hope that we can do it here.”
The moment may have passed but it will not be forgotten. As Black America now continues to sound the alarm about the Jena Six, a new generation is poised to carry the torches to their schools and beyond until justice can finally be reached.