“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 in 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.” (From The Chicago Tribune, May 20, 2007)
I’m the white Pentecostal preacher mentioned by Howard Witt in his Tribune article. Despite the fact that I made that statement—perhaps because I made it—I feel obligated to comment on the misinformation passing as fact concerning racial tension in our community. I believe those words from my Internet essay, “The Battle against Racism in Jena, Louisiana,” to be true . [To read the essay in context, go to http://authorsden.com/visit/viewarticle.asp?AuthorID=17296&id=25922] We live in a community that is plagued with bigotry. But that isn’t the only truth. In fact, there isn’t much truth about this story at all being bandied about in the national media.
To remind some and inform others about our situation: In September of 2006, three white students hung nooses from a tree in the center court area of Jena High School. Black students believed it was directed at them for attempting to hang out under the tree. The white students claimed the nooses were aimed at a rival football team, The Mustangs, who was the next opponent. Black parents were understandably upset. In December of 2006, six black students attacked a white student, beating him and kicking him until he was knocked unconscious. He was taken to the hospital and released later that day. The six black students were charged with attempted second degree murder, which outraged their parents. Sprinkled between those events were two incidents involving students from different races that may or may not have been related, one involving a fight at a party where a white student beat a black student and one involving a white man who pulled a shotgun on several black men in the parking lot of a convenience store. Also, an unknown arsonist gutted Jena High School in a late night fire. The perpetrators have not been arrested. Lastly, the original white victim of the December beating was arrested for possessing a firearm on school grounds when his best friend told a teacher that he had a .22 caliber hunting rifle behind the seat of his truck.
Lumped together in one paragraph, especially in light of the nooses being hung, these events shout one thing to the casual observer: RACIAL TENSION! In context, these events took place over a period of eight months: A despicable prank, two fights, a standoff in a parking lot, and a costly fire. Read the headlines in your hometown newspaper. String together the worse incidents over the last eight months through a prism of racism. Tell me what you see. Although I believe that racism exists in Jena, I also believe it exists throughout the south. In fact, according to news accounts, racism exists in every major city in the north as well. And the racism found here in America is subtle compared to what is going on around the world. Those covering the Jena story—and I admit the story is newsworthy—should use some perspective in their reporting. If the charges of second degree murder against the “Jena Six” raised the racial tension in Jena, the coverage of the events of the last eight months has ratcheted it up significantly.
Let me dispel a few rumors and innuendoes that have festered into questionable facts. First, the media keeps repeating what some of the distraught parents of the six black students keep erroneously insisting: “that nothing happened to those white kids who hung the nooses.” These students being minors, administrators can’t comment on the facts. I have learned that those white students were first suspended and then sent to an alternative school off-campus. They underwent psychological evaluations before being re-admitted to Jena High School and even then were separated from the student body at first. The victim of the December beating was not one of these students. The attack was not retribution for the nooses, as some have speculated. There have been no riots, fights, or other violent demonstrations or racial clashes in the streets of our town. In eight months, just those incidents listed above. In fact, local clergy and other elements of our town’s leadership have attempted to come together in unity to bring racial healing and progress to our community. In the last eight months, more has been attempted to unite the races in Jena than at any other time since the schools were integrated.
The charges against the Jena Six drive this story. Attorneys and leaders of national race-based organizations have hi-jacked any local efforts to overcome racial tensions. If the charges made by Reed Walters, our local District Attorney, are supported by the evidence, these young men should suffer the consequences of their actions. If the evidence does not support these charges, they should be dropped or reduced.
I personally believe that the local school board system, law enforcement agencies, and courts are responsible for the racial progress that has been made in our community in the course of my lifetime. What remain are the heart and the spirit of individuals who live here. Local ministers, parents, and business owners must step up to the table and begin to teach our children the Golden Rule, which is color blind. The day of questionable pejorative phrases and bigoted generalities is over in America. We must respect one another; and we must respect the law. When the cameras are gone and this trial is behind us, Jena will resume its progress towards spiritual unity between the races.