One morning last September, students arrived at the local high school to find three hangman’s nooses dangling from a tree in the courtyard.
The tree was on the side of the campus that, by long-standing tradition, had always been claimed by white students, who make up more than 80 percent of the 460 students. But a few of the school’s 85 black students had decided to challenge the accepted state of things and asked school administrators whether they, too, could sit in the tree’s shade.
“Sit wherever you want,” school officials told them. The next day, the nooses were hanging from the branches.
African-American students and their parents were outraged and intimidated by the display, which instantly summoned memories of the mob lynchings that once terrorized blacks across the South. Three white students were identified as responsible, and the principal recommended that they be expelled.
But Jena’s white school superintendent, Roy Breithaupt, ruled that the nooses were just a youthful stunt and suspended the students for three days, angering blacks who felt harsher punishments were justified.
Yet it was after the noose incident that the violent, racially charged events that are still convulsing Jena began.
First, a series of fights between black and white students erupted at the high school. Then, in late November, unknown arsonists set fire to the central wing of the school, causing heavy damage. Off campus, a white youth beat up a black student who showed up at an all-white party. A few days later, another young white man pulled a shotgun on three black students at a convenience store.
Finally, on Dec. 4, a white student was attacked, allegedly by a group of black students, on his way out of the school gymnasium. The victim, supposedly targeted because he was a friend of the students who hung the nooses and had been taunting blacks—was knocked unconscious and kicked after he fell. He was treated briefly at a local hospital and released.
After the attack, LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters decided to charge six black students with attempted second-degree murder and other offenses, for which they could face a maximum of 100 years in prison if convicted. All six were expelled from school.
To the defendants, their families and civil rights groups that have examined the events, the attempted-murder charges, brought by a white prosecutor, are excessive and part of a pattern of uneven justice in the town.
The critics note, for example, that the white youth who beat the black student at the party was charged only with simple battery, while the white man who pulled the shotgun at the convenience store wasn’t charged with any crime at all. But the three black youths in that incident were arrested and accused of aggravated battery and theft after they wrestled the weapon from the man—in self-defense, they said.
“Jena is a place that’s moving in the right direction,” said Mayor Murphy McMillan. “Race is not a major local issue. It’s not a factor in the local people’s lives.”
Still others, however, acknowledge troubling racial undercurrents in a town where 16 years ago white voters cast most of their ballots for David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader who ran for Louisiana governor.
“I’ve lived here most of my life, and the one thing I can state with absolutely no fear of contradiction is that LaSalle Parish is awash in racism—true racism,” a white Pentecostal preacher, Eddie Thompson, wrote in an essay he posted on the Internet. “Here in the piney woods of central Louisiana . . . racism and bigotry are such a part of life that most of the citizens do not even recognize it.”
The lone black member of the school board agrees.