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The Jena Six: “Southern Trees Bear Strange Fruit”

by Kelly Vásquez

I have always been deeply affected and influenced by music. Depending on my mood, I happily switch between drastically varying genres, but from age six when I first heard Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong deftly banter back and forth at one another, I was hooked on jazz.

One of my favorite jazz songs was resonating in my head all this weekend as I sat down to write and reflect on the “Jena 6” situation: it was the haunting sound of Billie Holiday’s rendition of Strange Fruit, the now iconic jazz song which was originally a poem about the lynching of two black men written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx. The first four lines have always arrested me, but I find them particularly disarming when viewed in the context of a situation such as that currently going on in Jena:

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

By now it may be an overly “simple” image of racism in the South, but its vividness and clarity of emotion still stir me. I don’t know of a better impetus to action.

The image of nooses hanging from trees in the South has been vividly and inextricably linked to the struggle for racial equality in the United States for decades, if not centuries. And unfortunately, as proven by the events in Jena, Lousiana, over the last year, it is once again all too salient a cultural reference.


In August of 2006, a group of African-American football players on the Jena High School team went to their principal to talk about a tree on their school’s campus which was known as the “whites-only tree.” They wanted to know if they, as people of color, would be allowed to sit it under it. Their principal told them that the tree was for all students to use and that there certainly was no school policy that dictated that it was only for whites.

The next day, however, three rope nooses were displayed hanging ominously from that very tree. The three white male students discovered to be responsible for this sobering spectacle were put on in-school suspension for three days, much to the outrage of much of the student body and community. Understandably, tensions between white and black students continued to mount for the next several months.

Then in December, after a series of continued conflicts, the situation escalated when six of those African-American students ganged up on a fellow white student, leaving him swollen, bruised and temporarily unconscious. The white student was treated at a local hospital for his injuries, released later that evening and was able to attend a school function that same night.

The legal system steps in with heavy boots while support for the Jena 6 builds across the nation

As a result of the attack, those six African-American students – the now infamous “Jena 6” – were all criminally charged. At the time of the incident, Robert Bailey, Jr. was 17; Mychal Bell, 16; Carwin Jones, 18; Bryant Purvis, 17; and Theo Shaw, 17. These five, including Mychal Bell, who was a juvenile at the time, but was charged as an adult, were charged with attempted second-degree murder. The last of the six, Jesse Ray Beard, was charged as a juvenile because as he was only 14 at the time.

To date only one of the young men, Mychal Bell, has had his day in court; the rest are awaiting their trials. Mychal Bell’s trial ended in June. In jail since December, Bell was convicted of aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated battery (both felonies) by an all-white jury in a trial where his public defender called no witnesses. During his trial, Mychal’s parents were ordered not to speak to the media and the court prohibited protests from taking place near the courtroom or where the judge could see them.

The events in Jena bring to light a Pandora’s Box of emotionally charged, absolutely critical issues that not only Jena, but the whole US has to resolve. As a result, the events in Jena have triggered passionate responses from people around the country.

Early on Thursday, September 20, literally tens of thousands of people from around the nation converged on Jena. As CBS News national correspondent Byron Pitts described it, “Many drove day and night on buses from across the country: A caravan from Los Angeles, activists from Detroit, college kids from Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Houston, Atlanta and cities in between.”

Demonstrators formed a vast procession, about eight people across stretching more than a half mile, and that was just part of one crowd. Only a few white marchers were scattered among the vast assemblage.

The Washington Post commented on what turned out to be a phenomenon:

As demonstrators poured into town in buses, in cars and on foot, they spoke of nostalgia for the huge civil rights marches of a generation ago and a hope that the response to the Jena demonstrations might rekindle the movement.

The buses began arriving in Jena hours before dawn, the travelers stepping out stiff, yawning and bleary-eyed. Most wore black T-shirts with the message “Stop the criminalization of our children” and “What is the color of justice?”

Among those who came to Jena to support the effort to turn the case around for the six young men were the Rev. Al Sharpton, Martin Luther King III, son of the slain civil rights leader, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Dennis Courtland Hayes, interim president and CEO of the NAACP, who compared the outcry over the Jena arrests to the controversy that rose to inflammatory levels when radio personality Don Imus made racial remarks about the young women of the Rutgers University basketball team.

“People are saying, ‘That’s enough, and we’re not taking it any more,’ ” Hayes declared.

On The Early Show before arriving in Jena, Reverend Sharpton commented, “This is the most blatant example of disparity in the justice system that we’ve seen. You can’t have two standards of justice.” He continued, “We didn’t bring race into it. Those that hung the nooses brought race into it.”

Later in the day, the crowd broke into chants of “Free the Jena Six” as the Rev. Al Sharpton arrived at the local courthouse with family members of the arrested teens. Speaking to the huge crowd, Sharpton saw Jena as part of a larger pattern: “There’s Jenas in Atlanta, there’s Jenas in New York, there’s Jenas in Florida, and there are Jenas all over Texas.”

Ever an optimist, I’ve been trying to view the latest developments with an eye towards some shred of a silver lining. And I would have to say that the impact that the Internet and blogging have had in getting the word out and rallying supporters – on both sides of the issue – has been both impressive and positive for the most part. Some civil rights leaders have criticized the current generation for not taking an active-enough role in the struggle for racial justice. Perhaps, the effectiveness of the mostly web-based grassroots movement that got tens of thousands of people to show up in Jena is evidence of how this generation is going to wage its attack.

But white supremacist groups have also been using the Internet to their advantage. William A. “Bill” White, commander of the American National Socialist Workers Party, a Roanoke-based white supremacy group well-known to the FBI, went so far as to post the home addresses for five of the six young black men. White also listed some of the defendants’ telephone numbers, urging his readers to “Get in touch, and let them know justice is coming.” The posting that contained the contact information for the six youths was headlined: “Addresses of Jena 6 N—–s; In case anyone wants to deliver justice.” The website features a swastika, frequent use of racial slurs and a mailing address in Roanoke, Virginia.

In a second item, White was quoted as saying: “If these n—–s are released or acquitted, we will find out where they live and make sure that white activists and white citizens in Louisiana know it … in order to find someone willing to deliver justice.”

On Saturday, the Rev. Al Sharpton confirmed that White’s revealing this privileged information had had the effect White desired, saying that some of the families have received “almost around the clock calls of threats and harassment.” He called on Gov. Kathleen Blanco to intervene.

“These people need more than an investigation. They need protection,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson said. He said his organization would be in touch with President Bush’s nominee for attorney general, Michael Mukasey.

“This is a test for the disposition of the Department of Justice to serve as an intervener and a deterrent” to hate crimes and discrimination, Jackson continued. He said federal marshals should protect the families.

Racism across the nation

All this is horrific enough in 2007. However, I am concerned that as upsetting as Jena is, it is perhaps too “easy” and “expected” a race-related event. The media is doing its best to feign outrage and disbelief at the events unfolding in Jena. But if it’s honest with itself, most of America is not surprised by these events at all. And if there are some who find this so, then they should ask some serious questions of themselves.

Images of swinging nooses, KKK members marching in crisp white cloaks, and unfairly persecuted black males in the South is, quite frankly, the default (albeit stereotypical) image that many people have of race-relations in the South. Granted, as Jena has proven all too well, the South is not immune from these time-worn kinds of incidents. My concern, however, is that since Jena fits so neatly into that stereotypical image of Dixie-at-its-worst, it will be too easily and quickly dismissed as “Oh, that’s the South for you” or “Oh, that’s what you get in those small, backwater towns”.

Racism and its ill-effects are by no means limited to below the Mason-Dixon line. Having lived for many years in New York and California – two undeniably solidly blue states – and then also having spent three years in central Virginia – an equally undeniably red state – I can say from firsthand experience that ignorance and hate based on skin color and physical characteristics exist in every corner of the states. But you don’t have to take my word for it.

According to a Justice Department report released in July 2003, about 10.4% of the entire African-American male population in the United States aged 25 to 29 was incarcerated, by far the largest racial or ethnic group – by comparison, 2.4% of Hispanic men and 1.2% of white men in that same age group were incarcerated. According to a report by the Justice Policy Institute in 2002, the number of black men in prison has grown to five times the rate it was twenty years ago. Today, more African-American men are in jail than in college. In 2000 there were 791,600 black men in prison and 603,032 enrolled in college. In 1980, there were 143,000 black men in prison and 463,700 enrolled in college.

African American youth are drastically disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system. For example, a 1995 study by Building Blocks for Youth reported that although African-American youth age 10 to 17 constitute 15% of their age group in the U.S. population, they account for 26% of juvenile arrests, 32% of delinquency referrals to juvenile court, 41% of juveniles detained in delinquency cases, 46% of juveniles in corrections institutions, and 52% of juveniles transferred to adult criminal court after judicial hearings.

So where does this litany of depressing statistics and facts leave us? House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI) announced plans to hold Congressional hearings addressing the case of the Jena 6, saying, “In 2007 there should not be even allegations of unequal justice based on race or any other factors…We’ve reached a point in history where this kind of situation is no longer tolerable…”

In response, I defer to the all too appropriate words of Melissa McEwen, a reporter for AlterNet: “I’m pretty certain that we’ve reached that point half a dozen other times in my lifetime and many times before – but here’s hoping this time it sticks!”

However, on Wednesday afternoon, August 26th, there was finally some good news for the only member of the Jena 6 to still be in jail: CNN reported that Louisiana’s governor, Kathleen Blanco, had announced that the case of Mychal Bell would be moved to juvenile court.

Gov. Blanco said that she had discussed Bell’s case with LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters on Wednesday, and that Walters had agreed not to continue to challenge a state appeals court ruling that dismissed Bell’s battery and conspiracy convictions.

The court had ruled that Bell, who was 16 at the time of the beating, should have been tried in juvenile court instead of having the case transferred to adult court.

Blanco made the announcement alongside civil rights leaders Martin Luther King III and Al Sharpton.

The point was one of the major issues that had drawn the protestors to Jena. Most felt the “Jena 6” were being treated much more harshly than the three white students who had hung nooses from an oak tree on high school property, since the white students were suspended from school but had not faced any criminal charges. The protesters were convinced they should have been charged with a hate crime.

How this will play out in the end remains to be seen. Young Mychal Bell is still in jail. His life and promising future has been ruined: as his father, Marcus Jones, said, he “still holds the stack of scholarship offers his son once had to choose from. LSU, Southern Miss, Ol’ Miss and the University of New York were all interested.” Whether they still will be when this case is resolved, and how long that will take, is still very much anyone’s guess.

About the Author

Kelly Vásquez grew up in Saudi Arabia, New York City and London, and after working for a large corporate law firm in New York, has happily settled on the West Coast. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in government from Cornell University and her Juris Doctor from the University of Virginia School of Law. Throughout her schooling, Kelly took a particularly keen interest in race and gender studies and was an active member of her schools’ minority communities. At UVa, she was one of the founding members of Women of Color, a student group formed to provide support for the diverse population of women at the law school and whose existence as an official student group allowed it to serve as a forum for discussion of issues affecting women of color everywhere. She was also co-president of Students United to Promote Racial Awareness, a large student organization aimed at promoting communication, interaction, and understanding among students with different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

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