Uncovering the roots of racism

September 27, 2007

by Mandy Thomas

JENA, La. – Slouched in the back seat of a compact two-door hatchback, I watched the sun slowly ascend over fogged-smeared cotton fields as I rode to visit the small town of Jena, La. Riding with another photographer and reporter whom I had met just an hour earlier, this morning felt uncharacteristically cold for one belonging to late September. The usually deserted four-lane highway between Monroe and Jena filtered a steady stream of buses and vans, all making their way to be a part of a story whose tale has once and often been told before.

As the hour neared 8 a.m., we reached the outskirts of Jena. The road narrowed and grew casually shady from limbs of large oak trees that reached toward our car, gesturing to us like a grandmother extending her arms upon her tiny grandbabies.

After an unguided detour and a short stall in traffic, we parked the car and filed quietly into the fold of people dressed in black and walking curiously toward the LaSalle Parish Courthouse. The streets seemed strangely silent. Sounds of car doors shutting and muffled scuffing of shoes across the pavement towered over any lingering of chants and cheers coming from the crowds gathered at the courthouse.

“I guess I missed the memo to wear black,” said the photographer to his reporter. Quickly the reporter replied,
“You aren’t here to be a part of the protest, Mike. You’re here to capture it.”
I carried that statement with me as neared I the center of the rally. There were no centralized speeches or overbearing synchronized screams. Just rolling spouts of melodious refrains and catchy repetitions that spread without pattern or warning through the unyielding waves of visiting protesters.

I walked along the edge of the march looking inward on the people who were there for a greater purpose. They were there to take a stance, and they were there to make a statement.

A small set of concrete steps on the side of Jena High served as a resting point for a group of Grambling State University students who had driven down in the early morning to be a part of something historic happening only a short distance from their homes and for the first time in their lives.

“I think this is history,” Whitney McGreew, a junior sports management major at Grambling, said. “And I hope justice is served for the Jena Six, whatever crime they did or did not commit.”

Sharmian Adams, a senior mass communication major at Grambling, said it was unfair how the six boys were treated.

“If everybody that took place in the events was getting the same treatment, it would be all right. But since they not, it’s not all right,” Adams said.

L. Williams, a senior management and economics major at Grambling, traveled to Jena with the hope of increasing awareness of the situation.

“Why am I here?” Williams asked. “Because it’s not right and something inside of you says you should do something – whatever you can.”

I took one final sweep through the crowd before returning to our decided meeting place.

By now, the small city blocks of Jena were feeling the familiar southern summer heat.
Leftover water bottles and packaged snacks were gathering on the sidewalks and streets.

A man dressed in black biking leather was carrying a brown box above everyone’s heads collecting an offering for the bail of Mychal Bell.

The man served as an ambassador for a radio
preacher and personality who was shouting from the top of a large white van parked near a portable satellite tower.

From somewhere in the mass, a taller man strecthed his arm to drop a dollar into the box, shortly followed by a shorter woman reaching her hand eagerly toward the leathering man.

“Thank you, black man,” he said.
“Thank you, sister.”

And then from the mouth of the van-top prophet came the confident words,
“This is how we free Mychal Bell, y’all.”