(Al Sharpton recently visited our town. I was asked if his visit would help the Jena Six. Following is part of that discussion.)
Perhaps it’s just my background in scripture that nudges me to notice a flaw in the logic of the chants arising from those protesting the trials of the Jena Six. The cry is for “justice.” Al Sharpton, who recently visited Trout Creek Baptist Church to support the Mychal Bell family, also called for justice in the case involving the first member of the Jena Six who was convicted by an all white jury of aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated second-degree battery. I understand the historical significance of the call for “justice” that galvanized the nation during the civil rights battles of the sixties and seventies. Those who want all charges dropped against the Jena Six wave that flag today to draw from that sense of historical injustice in an effort to bolster their cause. In light of the verdict in the Mychal Bell trial, the argument could be made that perhaps what the supporters of the Jena Six should be crying for is “mercy,” not “justice.” As applied to our court system, justice is the judgment of persons or causes by judicial process. It is also the administering of deserved punishment or reward. Some would say justice has already been served in this incident. What Mychal Bell needs now is mercy from the judge who will sentence him in September.
As nationally known professors of racism visit our community, the idea is that the attention will somehow help the problems that exist in Jena. The parents of the Jena Six understandably hope that the light being shined internationally will be a catalyst for the release of their children from the charges against them. As for the root problem—racism, bigotry, and prejudice in our community—there is absolutely no hope that these visits will heal our town. I was recently asked if Reverend Sharpton’s visit to Jena would help the Jena Six. It’s hard to say. This one thing I do know: In many sectors of our white community, Reverend Sharpton’s visit had the same impact as the black community would experience if David Duke sponsored a rally in support of the three boys who hung nooses from the tree at Jena High School. In the minds of many, six black students are guilty of a crime. Supporting them is supporting the concept that it’s acceptable to stomp a white student if you feel discriminated against. If Duke sponsored such a rally, it would be decried in the vast majority of the white community. In all probability, even the three white boys and their families would not attend. Logically, there appears to be a double standard.
The people of Jena see themselves being painted as backwater racists. Although there are racists here, the blanket judgment is simply false. Recently, on WWL radio in New Orleans, a talk show host was taking calls concerning the Jena Six. One particular caller, a black victim of Hurricane Katrina, discussed what had happened to him in the days following the tragedy in New Orleans. His family and several others headed north until they ran out of gas and provision in a small town of which none of them had ever heard. They were literally homeless, with nowhere to go and no way to get there. They hunkered down in the Wal-Mart parking lot to discuss a course of action. In their futility, some of the locals from a nearby church approached them and discovered their condition. The church took them in and cared for them several weeks; they would take nothing in return for their efforts. This black man concluded his discourse by stating that out of the twenty or so people who were with him from New Orleans, of which over half were black, there was absolutely no difference in the treatment received by the black or white victims of Katrina. Despite what he was presently hearing on the news, his experience with the small town of Jena, Louisiana was different than the portrayal by the national press.
At some point, those who take the time to examine the condition here in Jena will discover that the situation is more complex than what can be discussed in a two minute snapshot from the media. Life is never so neat as to allow us to cast blanket judgments on people, communities, and races. Isn’t that the problem we face in the first place? Somewhere in the troubles haunting our town today we must stand for what is right in every instant, however it impacts the white or black community. There’s a time to cry for justice and a time to cry for mercy: Knowing the difference seems important in this case. The simple truth is that the two divergent concepts are not mutually exclusive: Racism could exist in Jena, Louisiana, and the Jena Six could be guilty of criminal activity.