Jena 6 case isn’t perfect, but it’s clear

Dawn Turner Trice

September 24, 2007

During the civil rights movement, leaders were extremely picky about the people chosen to represent the cause. Before Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her seat in the back of that Montgomery, Ala., bus, for example, others had been arrested for similar infractions.

But Rosa Parks was different. She was the perfect person to illustrate to the world what was wrong with Montgomery’s segregated bus system. She had no criminal background. She was earnest, petite and well-spoken. Clearly, those who knew her knew that she was also strong-willed and feisty. But she was the perfect person to engender broad-based appeal.

Last week, a South Carolina newspaper reported that Rev. Jesse Jackson chided Sen. Barack Obama for not coming out more strongly in Louisiana’s racially charged Jena 6 case.

According to the paper, Jackson said Obama was “acting like he’s white” for not speaking out more forcefully or apparently using more of his muscle as a Democratic presidential candidate. Jackson later said his comments had been taken out of context.

As I’m sure you know, the Jena 6 case began last year with black students wanting to sit under a “white” tree at their high school and evolved into white students being suspended for hanging nooses on the tree. Since then, racially charged fights have flared, and six black students — known now as the Jena 6 — were arrested in the beating of a white student.

Jackson and others have rightly noted that prosecutors have been much tougher in charging the black students than their white counterparts.

“If I were a candidate, I’d be all over Jena,” Jackson is reported to have said after a speech last week. “Jena is a defining moment, just like Selma was a defining moment.”

What I find even more intriguing than the “acting white” comment is Jackson’s overall criticism — which doesn’t appear to be in dispute — that Obama has been a bit lukewarm about the Jena 6 case.

If you look at it straight on, it’s not totally clear-cut. And that’s true even if you’re not a presidential candidate who may be skittish about losing votes in key Southern states.

The violence, the beating, complicate things, even though the case may appear black and white. Many of the 1950s and 1960s civil-rights era cases presented far more moral clarity. There were distinct rights and wrong with little overlap. You felt it in the gut.

Back then, civil rights leaders — and Jackson knows this — were careful about the battles they chose. They didn’t want the objective to be mired in something murky. They didn’t want many gray areas.

What’s far less murky in the Jena 6 case is that this is one of unequal justice. Far harsher criminal charges were brought against the black youths for fighting than the white students for similar infractions. What’s true also is that all of the students equally have used poor judgment and all should be held accountable. But considering the circumstances, none of them should have to pay with their lives by possibly facing long prison terms. And that’s what the black students are facing.

As Richard Cohen from the Southern Poverty Law Center said, the data consistency show that black people are treated more harshly than white people in the criminal justice system. “Blacks aren’t often given the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “If discretion is exercised, it’s more often exercised in an adverse way to blacks.”

That’s what resonated with the many people who marched last week in Jena. It was both heartening and gratifying to see so many come from around the country to protest injustice. It would be even more heartening and gratifying if folk continued to come together to work on other issues affecting the black community.

Jackson is old school, part of the old guard. He remembers clearly when blacks needed to be on the same page and at pretty much the same time.

Now when situations involving race do arise, it’s OK if some of us wait for more details or look at the situation from different sides. We may still end up at the same place.

There’s nothing wrong with being black and, when it comes to race, seeing the shades of gray.