Black September, Part Two: My Thoughts on Jena, Louisiana

There’s perhaps no other state in the union where the paradox of race in America is so vivid than in Louisiana. I was born in Louisiana and my family’s roots go deep into its marshy soil. My great-great-great grandfather on my mother’s side was a white slaveowner of French-Swiss and German descent. According to family legend, my great-great-great grandmother, one of his slaves with whom he eventually consorted and had nine children, was at least part Native American and her name suggests the possibility of Italian descent as well. My great-great grandfather, great grandfather and grandfather on my mother’s side were all black. My genealogy mirrors the unique racial and ethnic mix in that state – African, Caribbean, French, Spanish, German, and Native American, just to name the ones that are most prevalent in Louisiana’s history – which could be cleverly described as a “gumbo.” That gumbo’s taste, however, has always been sour rather than scrumptious and I honestly don’t understand how that can be in such a diverse state. Much of the ignorance in this nation about race stems from a lack of contact with different kinds of people on a daily basis, but Louisiana has no such excuse. To use a term from the Harry Potter children’s series, there’s too many “mudbloods” in Louisiana for them to get all uptight over race, but they do it anyway.

Some of the most profound disagreements I had with my family growing up were over the issue of race, and those disagreements usually involved my relatives who had been born and raised in Louisiana. I even walked away from the church for twelve years because of what I perceived as racist statements from the pulpit of a black church in Lake Charles, Louisiana, my hometown. In my opinion, Louisiana is more obsessed with race on both sides of the divide than any other place I’ve ever lived.

As a result, I first read the stories coming out of Jena, Louisiana through perhaps a different lens than many people. “That’s no surprise,” I muttered to myself as I read about the existence of a tree on school grounds where only white students typically sought shade. An innocuous request by black students to sit under the tree led to an escalation of stupidity on both sides – nooses and school fights and heightened racial tensions which abated during football season because they needed their black and white athletes to work together to win. Frankly, their ability to set aside their differences for a time in order to achieve a common objective makes everything that happened subsequently so utterly foolish and unnecessary. The beating of the lone white youth by six black teens isn’t defensible, and I must give credit to the Rev. Al Sharpton for making that statement more than once in his public pronouncements on the case. There was also at least one beating of a black student by white teens that wasn’t as widely reported. 

The charges brought against these two different sets of teens, however, are where school officials and the local district attorney crossed the line. While the white teens were suspended for their behavior, an appropriate response to a schoolyard fight, the black teens were expelled from school and brought up on felony charges as adults. These actions revealed either an incredible insensitivity to the tension around them or blatant racism on the part of the school officials and the local district attorney who brought the charges. Whichever is true, the result is the same – equal justice unrealized.

As for the march on Jena itself, I cringed when I read about more than one person referring to the event as the beginning of the 21st century civil rights movement. If anything, the march bore much more of a resemblance to the civil rights movement of the 20th century. There appeared to be almost an air of nostalgia among the people who were planning and executing the march. Even the terms they used, like “Freedom Riders” and “Free the Jena 6,” seemed like throwbacks to a time our children only read about in history books or watch on PBS. Some were even referring to Jena as the current generation’s Selma!  It was as if the marchers and their leaders were willingly being drawn into a time warp where Jim Crow, “separate but equal” and “colored” and “white” facilities were still very much in existence.

The fact is that Jena isn’t Selma – there was no “Bloody Sunday,” no billy clubs, tear gas, or bull whips, no inflicted injuries, and no one beaten to death. Moreover, the actions of the “Jena 6” are diminished when juxtaposed with the “Little Rock 9.” We recently honored the courage these nine young black people exhibited 50 years ago when they walked through a gauntlet of sheer white rage, escorted by the National Guard under Republican President Dwight Eisenhower’s order to enforce the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, there were other brave young people, black and white, who put their lives at risk for the cause of racial equality, and many of them never returned to their families, their youthful promise snuffed out at the hands of evil and desperate men. The "Jena 6" deserved our help to ensure their punishment was fair, but they aren't the descendants of these young heroes and martyrs of civil rights battles past.

Times have changed and yes, millions of hearts have changed. We would still be in legal bondage if that were not the case. If we are to be credible in our fight for equal justice, we need to have a sense of perspective. It’s not 1965, and we're not standing on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It’s 2007 and we are standing on uncertain ground as we assess our current situation.

It was 1965 when Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned us about the crisis of the disintegrating black family based on what was then a 25% illegitimate birth rate in the black population and the abandonment by young black males of the single mothers and children they created. We didn’t address the problem then out of misplaced pride and births out of wedlock in the black community today are approaching 70%. Most blacks murdered in this country are murdered by other blacks. Black women are three times more likely to abort their babies than whites. The institutions of life and family which kept our community whole during the darkest times are taking a beating every day. They need the same attention we currently devote to ensuring equal justice, or perhaps more given the criticality of the situation.

Our challenges today are threefold. First, we need to celebrate our great successes as a people since the 1960s. The press and our self-anointed black leadership have us believing that there’s nothing good or worthwhile happening in the black community in 2007, and that’s simply untrue.  How will our children know what’s possible if we never show them? We need to honor and give visibility to the achievements in the black community so we can imbue our young people with hope and stir their dreams.

Second, we need to reemphasize and rebuild the black family by promoting in our churches and communities the dignity and value of each individual and the sequential steps to success – graduate from school, take and keep a job, get married and establish a home, and then have children. These actions alone reduce one’s chances of living in poverty by over 300 percent.

Third, we need to relearn how to stay above the fray in our quest for equal justice.  I would never contend that racism is dead. Racism will always be with us because it is part of the fallen nature of man. Our response to racism, however, is how we differentiate ourselves. The success of the civil rights movement of the 1960s was based in its unimpeachable moral integrity. We occupied the high ground even when those who opposed us did not. Romans 12:21 says “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Titus 2:6-8 says, “Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.” We are promised trouble in this life and we won’t always be treated fairly. Society today teaches us that if we are hit, we’re supposed to hit back harder and the required response to any slight is outrage. Our responsibility, however, is to adopt the good in the face of the bad. 

Please don’t misunderstand me. The march at Jena was the right thing to do.  Otherwise, the authorities would have pressed ahead with the excessive and unwarranted felony charges against these teens. The authorities in Jena were wrong to levy these charges against the “Jena 6” and have no one but themselves to blame for accusations of racism. Regardless of what the authorities claim, it was the spotlight the march cast on their misdeeds that led them to drop the charges and deal with this case properly. The marchers were exemplary in their behavior and kept a tense situation from escalating further. They did us proud, and I have nothing but the utmost gratitude for those who took the time out of their busy lives to stand in the gap for all of us.

I simply hope the sorry episode in Jena and other pockets of ignorance throughout the nation don't blind us to the real progress we’ve made since the days of Selma, or take our focus away from the challenges of the present and future. I can’t speak for anyone else but given a choice of the era in which I’d rather live, I think I’ll take the new millennium over the 1960s.

Next: Blacks and Republicans – Can we reconcile?