By now most people who aren’t living under a rock should have heard about the circumstances surrounding the Jena 6 in Jena, Louisiana. If not, here are a couple links out of the many you can find to gather the gist of the information.
Free the Jena 6
Jena 6 in the News
However, I am not writing to discuss the details of the case. I want to tackle this from a different angle. I want to talk about the march itself and the details of how it came about. This particular march at Jena on September 20th took only three weeks to organize and execute. It started when a nationally syndicated talk show host named Michael Baisden took on enlightening his listeners about the Jena 6 case. I remember listening to the radio program and as I took in the information was appalled not only by the injustice itself of how the case was being handled, but also that I had not heard or read anything on the local or national news media outlets. As Baisden spoke to some of the parties involved with trying to help the young men, the first order of business became to bring national attention to the case of Mychal Bell in particular, because he was to be sentenced for attempted murder which in reality was merely a school fight on September 20th. Baisden said in a round about way that it would be nice to do a show from the Jena area. The Louisiana radio host on the other line said he would welcome that with open arms. Well be careful what you ask for. Because the decision was made right there on the spot and on the air that they would do the show locally on Mychal Bell’s sentencing date.
What started off as an idea for the show to simply give the case some needed national exposure ended up being a demonstration of civil rights advocacy not seen in some 30 years! Baisden asked that some of the other major black radio DJs such as Tom Joyner, Doug Banks, Rickey Smiley, and Steve Harvey join forces in getting the word out as well as participating.
Now hear is the beauty of the march. It was a total grassroots effort – not started by the likes of Al Sharpton or Jessie Jackson. Now don’t get me wrong. I am not an Al Sharpton or Jessie Jackson hater. I love and appreciate those men for understanding that civil rights and equal justice are still an issue that is just as relevant today as it has ever been. There are some subjects, topics, and events that would never see the light of day if those men were not there to bring exposure to them. At the same time because of the way race is looked at in this country and the fact that historically white run media has determined that there are to only be a very small number of black voices who can speak on important minority issues, those men also have to bear the burden of being a lightening rod of controversy – to the point that even many black local leaders and citizens hate to see them come to town. Martin King had the same problem. Because he was the so called “spokesperson” for the black population, not only was he one of the media’s go to people for quotes and commentaries, but many African Americans felt he was an outsider and believed he agitated a situation more than helped it. This thinking while ignorant is understandable considering the hypnotic effect the general mainstream media has on Americans in general and black Americans specifically. Incidentally before Baisden’s show aired the Jena 6 details, Tom Joyner’s show already had featured the Jena 6 story and Sharpton, who had his own radio show, had visited Jena twice. The point is that Sharpton’s visit did not propel the national media attention. Tom Joyner has many more stations than Baisden. But Baisden took the influence he had with the popularity of his show, to touch off a revolution that gathered the nation in terms of information disseminated and the action taken to organize the march.
The results: Without the leading of a mainstream media appointed Negro, a disc jockey’s spoken word spurred national grass roots efforts to the tune of 60,000 marchers into the Alexandria/Jena area according to The Daily Advertiser.
To quote one line in the story, “They came from as near as Alexandria, Lafayette, Baton Rouge, Slidell, New Orleans and as far away as Detroit; Anchorage, Alaska; Los Angeles; the Cayman Islands.”
To pull this off you have to understand the thousands of local leaders who arranged and organized buses to bring these 60,000 plus people to Louisiana. When I say leaders, I don’t mean people with positions. I mean people who decided to be leaders by taking action and doing the little tedious things to make it easy for other people to simply ride on a bus and participate in a historical event. Buses and cars converged from all over the country including three buses from my hometown of East St. Louis, Illinois. And here is another gem that should not be overlooked. This entire national effort was planned and implemented in the span of three weeks! To quote Baisden, “That’s right I said it!” three weeks! In this day and age of African Americans having the image of caring only about the bling bling, hip hop and external immediate gratification - they organized and came together for a cause that had to do with six young men and their families. This happened while the likes of CNN and others national news sources initially were drunken with coverage that a Lindsey Lohan or Brittany Spears, Paris Hilton or OJ gets. As September 20th approached, it was as if the local and national media had just become aware of Jena. They knew all along, but the actions of tens of thousands of mostly African Americans put them in a position where they had to cover it.
Once the people ascended upon Jena, ranging from the infant to senior citizen for the peaceful rally, it was reported that men were crying from being overwhelmed by the show of support and unity of people gathering for a just cause. People prayed, danced, sang, gave speeches and did poetry. The media was amazed that there were no arrests and no disturbances. Not only did people rally in Jena, there were also several local rallies in different cities for people who could not make the trip. High schools students wore Jena 6 shirts and demonstrated in their schools all over the country. And even those that didn’t rally at all showed their support by wearing black.
The case of the Jena 6 is far from over. As I write this Mychal Bell’s conviction was overturned by the appellate court but another judge refused to allow him to have bail while we wait to see if he will be retried as a juvenile. There are still the other young men’s cases as well. There is more fighting to do in this case as well as others around the country wherever injustice is manifested. To paraphrase Al Sharpton, there is a Jena in many cities and towns around the country.
Still, I have to say that I have been touched and changed forever by the events that happened on September 20th in Jena, Louisiana. My heart was overwhelmed as I listened to the radio and watched the news coverage about what we had accomplished. A few thoughts came to mind. First, I felt as if I was an elder living in the days when Martin King or Malcolm X spoke. I felt as if I were witnessing history. But again, the names changed not just to Al Sharpton, Jessie Jackson, or Michael Baisden. The names were the many around the nation who gathered and showed their support in three weeks time. To that degree I am not sure if anything has been pulled off with such magnitude in the same manner. But I felt the historical significance going on around me. I understood the gravity of the moment and knew that I would never be the same. Certainly those who go to participate in Jena will forever be changed. Second, gone are the days where it is said that black folks can’t come together for a common cause. We all witnessed what black people can do when we decide to do it. Keep in mind that Mychal Bell’s conviction was overturned a week before the rally was to be held. Some felt that the rally should be called off at that time. But the momentum only got stronger. It went on as it should have because the immediate issue was the Jena 6, but the people understood that the larger issue is racial injustice and the legacy of White supremacy that has permeated our nation for far too long. When a district attorney, like the one in Jena, feels justified in allowing his racist views to misuse and manipulate the justice system, that has to be exposed and dealt with. I wonder will there be calls for his disbarment like the DA in the Duke Lacrosse case. Third, I find it ironic that the last time this much injustice for African Americans were on the front pages of the nation, it happened to be in the same state of Louisiana in the form of Hurricane Katrina. So in effect, what started with Katrina has continued with Jena and I believe that such events have sparked a new awareness that will not allow the same state of apathy among African Americans. We must be as concerned with the injustice we experience as a people wherever it may be and not only that which effects our immediate homes and communities. Too long we have been disconnected from the overall struggle that still remains. The wake up call seems to have been made and perhaps being answered as well. With the upcoming elections of 2008, hopefully we will take advantage of the power we have as we continue to unify for what is right. I have to say, I have a renewed hope in my people. So even for the grief people like the Jena 6 have had to endure, perhaps in the midst of this struggle there lies a blessing in the battle.