Two Unitarian Universalist congregations protest racial injustice.
The Jena Six are African American young men—four 17-year-olds, one 18-year-old, and one minor—who were arrested and charged with attempted murder after a high school fight with a white classmate in Jena, Louisiana, in December. Civil rights group have called the charges against the young men excessive and say officials failed to respond adequately to racist incidents at the high school that may have led to the fight.
All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church of Shreveport said in a resolution approved on September 9: “We believe the recent judicial proceedings against six young black men in Jena, Louisiana, reflect race-based selective prosecutions that run counter to our values and principles, and that such prosecutions represent a shameful racial injustice and are an embarrassment to our state.”
The Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, in a similar resolution adopted on the same day, committed itself “to public and private action in support of justice and reconciliation in Jena.”
The first of the young men to be tried, Mychal Bell, was convicted of aggravated second-degree battery by an all-white jury. An aggravated battery conviction carries a punishment of up to 15 years in prison. Sentencing will take place September 20. Activists in Louisiana and all over the country are decrying the potential harshness of the punishment and pointing to systemic injustices that prevented the young man from receiving a fair trial. Thousands are expected to protest in Jena on the day of the sentencing.
Located in central Louisiana, Jena is a town of 3,000 people. According to news reports, racial tensions at the Jena High School began to escalate in the summer of 2006 when an African American student sat in a place under a tree usually taken by white students. The following day, three nooses were found dangling from the tree. The students who put up the nooses were first expelled from school and then had their punishment lightened to a three-day suspension.
During the fall, several racially charged incidents in the town and at the school took place, including fights between white and black students. An unknown arsonist lit the high school on fire on November 30. Four days later, prosecutors say, the six black students attacked a white student, Justin Barker.
Barker went to the hospital with a concussion and other injuries but was released later that day. The six black students were arrested and charged initially with conspiracy to commit second-degree murder and attempted second-degree murder. The judge eventually reduced the charge to aggravated assault in Bell’s case and for three of the others. Five of the students are being tried as adults and one as a juvenile.
All Souls’s resolution condemning the treatment of the young men as racist also committed the congregation to educating themselves about racism, and to working with other churches to get justice for the six. The church, along with the Northern and Central Louisiana Interfaith Group, is hosting a prayer service on September 16. The congregation is planning to attend the September 20 rally in Jena.
At the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, William Winters, a social justice advocate on the church staff, has been working with the Rev. Steve Crump to put the issue before the congregation. Winters drafted a resolution condemning racism, which was approved by the congregation September 9. An interfaith candlelight vigil organized together with a Presbyterian church will be held at the Unitarian church on September 16. Like the Shreveport congregation, the Baton Rouge church plans to attend the rally in Jena.
The Rev. Lyn Oglesby, minister of the Shreveport church, is lobbying for the state’s three largest newspapers in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Shreveport, to take an editorial stand on the case, as well as keep readers informed. “There was nothing in the Shreveport Times about the case until May 24,” Oglesby said. “I got a call in July from the Rev. James Hobart in Chicago saying ‘What are you doing about this situation?’ People here were unaware.”
“This is a classic case of institutionalized racism,” she continued, “and we have an opportunity to improve the system by calling attention to it.”
Henry Walker is a Shreveport UU and an attorney who has worked with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has taken on the defense of the Jena Six. Walker is former president of the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and is part of the SPLC’s defense team for the Six. “The idea of overcharging black kids is so common here,” he said. “We see this kind of selective prosecution all the time in which white offenders go unpunished and the black ones go to jail.”
Walker said that one of the causes of the problem is a statewide lack of public defenders. “We’ve had people released from jail without ever having seen an attorney.” A new statute has recently been passed, he said, that would help rectify the situation.
Another issue that prejudices the system is the high bails frequently set for people of color, he noted. Five of the Jena Six are now out on bail—but at tremendous cost. “Families had to sell cars and mortgage houses to come up with the money,” Walker said.
The case has gotten widespread attention from civil rights activists, including the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who are mobilizing to have a presence at the Jena rally.
In the beginning, Walker said, the SPLC envisioned a quiet approach to the problem. “We thought the best thing would be for the Southern Poverty Law Center to marshal the best lawyers and go in and appeal the conviction of the first one and defend the others,” he said. However, widespread coverage of the story has made “quiet” impossible. “I’ve gotten 20 phone calls from lawyers volunteering to help,” Walker said.
While the case of the Jena Six has people outraged, for some, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. “There is institutional unfairness and injustice all across America,” said Winters. “Unfortunately, this is typical of what can happen elsewhere.”
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Jane Greer is a former senior editor of UU World magazine.
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