The well-publicized Jena story started on September 1, 2006, when a black high school student in Jena, Louisiana asked an administrator if he could sit underneath a tree in the courtyard where traditionally only white students sat. The administrator told him that he could sit wherever he wanted. The next day there were nooses hanging in the tree. No action was taken as the nooses were written off as a prank and not a threat aimed at the students who had dared to sit under the tree the day before. When black students protested, the local district attorney threatened that he could take their life away with a “stroke of my pen.”
After a series of alarming altercations where authorities time after failed to do the right thing, a black youth named Mychall Bell punched Justin Barker, a white youth who had taunted him with racial slur. Several of his friends joined the fray. They would become the Jena 6. Barker,who hit his head on the pavement went to the hospital, but was released that day and even went to a school function that night. The six black students were for some reason charged with attempted murder. It took a national outcry to reduce the charges to conspiracy and battery.
The impact of this case, especially from a Humanist perspective is summed up brilliantly by Bell’s Lawyer, Louis Scott:
Immediately after the facts were explained, I can remember thinking, Wow, this is a 1957 case that jumped into 2007. This is my second reaction, that the tree symbolized America. And the question was, Can all Americans share the shade of the system that we operate under? But the next thing that happened was the most frightening thing of all: They cut the tree down. I was hoping that didn’t symbolize the attitude of America, that before we allow some Americans to share the same rights, the same privileges and the same responsibilities, we’ll just get rid of the whole thing. It seemed to me that that was the message to be conveyed. If Americans allowed this to occur, that would be the first step toward unraveling the civil rights gains of the last fifty years.
Scott may not be a Humanist, but his question resonates: Can we all share the American system? Are we so frightened that we have to tear the things we love apart or break them down rather than let people who are different from us share even the tiniest piece?