Churches in Jena 'get along with each other,' leader says

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JENA, La. — Three nooses hung from a schoolyard tree more than a year ago sparked a race rally Sept. 20 in the tiny town of Jena, La., drawing as many as 60,000 people from across the country.

The nooses were hung by white students a day or so after black students sat under the tree. Black adults remembered a time in the first half of the 20th century when thousands of blacks were hung, mostly across the South.

"Outsiders tend to stereotype a town like Jena," said James Jenkins, strategist with African Americans for the Louisiana Baptist Convention. "I know the people in this town. I visit there regularly with black and with white pastors. This is not a racially divided town."

Jenkins added, "The local churches both black and white in Jena get along with each other. Good is going to come out of this. This is going to affect relationships in the town, and that will affect the community in a positive way.

"After the hoopla dies down, the churches are going to be seen as with each other for the cause of Christ," Jenkins predicted. "We're here; we're community; we're family; and we're going to get along."

As of mid-afternoon Sept. 20, things were quiet and peaceful in Jena, despite the sea of people clad in black overwhelming a town that's little more than a wide spot between rows of towering pine trees.

"The fact people are responding tells me they still believe racism is alive," Kelly Boggs, editor of the Louisiana Baptist Message newsjournal, said while watching reports of the day's proceedings. "Racial tension remains a reality in America today."

Dominick DiCarlo Jr., pastor of First Baptist Church in Jena and moderator of LaSalle Baptist Association, said he would not be able to talk until after the rally's conclusion.

The strife at the school first centered around a tree in the center of the schoolyard square at the high school, which since has been chopped down and used as firewood—one of the places where teens had congregated on the campus.

At a pre-school assembly about dress codes, a black youth asked if blacks could sit under the tree and was told anyone could sit anywhere. Some black students then did just that.

Later that week the three nooses were in the tree. The principal, on Sept. 7, 2006, recommended the three white "culprits" who hung the nooses be expelled; the school superintendent instead recommended suspension.


Tensions escalate
On Nov. 30, a fire destroyed the main academic building of the high school, which fire officials determined was the work of an arsonist.

A review of newspaper articles indicates racial tension escalated over that weekend. When school reopened Dec. 4, a black student knocked a white student against a wall. He hit his head and fell to the ground, unconscious. Five other black students also got involved in the incident.

Charges against the students—who became known as the "Jena Six"—were ratcheted up to attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit second-degree murder. One of the students, Mychal Bell, then 16, was charged as an adult.

By the time Bell appeared in court June 25 of this year, the charges had been reduced to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit the same.

When the jury was convened June 26, only 50 of 150 potential jurors showed up in court. All who appeared were white. Bell's defense team presented no witnesses and the jury convicted him June 28 after three hours of deliberation. Black activist Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III visited Jena in August.

Jesse Jackson, called for another march on Jena that took place Sept. 20. He joined Al Sharpton in the march with thousands of college students bused in from across the nation according to the Associated Press.

Bell's conviction was overturned by an appeals court Sept. 14. He was the only one of the defendants to be tried.

The other five defendants are free on bond.