WAKE UP CALL: A Mother's Pain, A Nation's Shame: Revisiting the case of the Jena Six PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 23 August 2007
Sample ImageA sweet voice greets me on the other end of my telephone. From the moment Tina Jones begins to speak, I am overwhelmed by her aura of purity and graciousness.

Though bombarded with requests for interviews on a daily basis, she begins her chat with me with a simple “Thank you.”

She pauses briefly to collect her thoughts and then elaborates, “I don’t know where I would be, if it was not for the support from near and far.”

It is only then that I detect the weariness in her heart and the strain on her spirit. The future of her son, Bryant Purvis, an honor student and athlete, hangs in the balance, the same way three nooses hung from the White Tree outside Jena High School in LaSalle Parish, Louisiana almost one year ago.

It was the fall of 2006 when three nooses swayed in the bayou breeze, hung from the branches of the now-infamous tree for whites only on the grounds of Jena High School. The scene, eerily reminiscent of the cryptic verses of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” was a response to the audacity of black students at the high school who defied the sanctity of this whites-only area of congregation.

In exercising their civil liberties and challenging the undercurrent of racial segregation stoically permitted within the Jena city limits, those students who dared to sit under the tree exposed the secret of a rural Louisiana town still basking in the mythical “separate but equal’’ climate of Jim Crow.

Of Jena’s 3,000 residents, only 350 are black.

Sample Image Tina Jones explains it this way: “It’s always been understood that the blacks stay in their part of town.”

This “understanding” is regularly enforced by local law enforcement when they find black youth venturing outside their neighborhoods and crossing into areas designated for whites.

According to Ms. Jones, “The cops here have no problem pulling over black teens and telling them to get back to your part of town.”

As Jones paints a verbal picture of life in Jena, I feel as though I am speaking to a survivor of the pre-Civil Rights Movement in the South. Her underlying anger is contradicted by her calm and measured tone. Though it may seem that she and the other black residents of Jena have accepted this unjust status quo, a quiet defiance reminiscent of Rosa Parks emerges from Ms. Jones as she talks about the plight of her son, Bryant, and his five co-defendants.

“I had to send him away to a private school. There is a restraining order out against him, and I don’t want him to even accidentally run into that boy,” she said.

The boy to whom Tina refers is Justin Barker, 18, the white Jena High School student who was allegedly beaten by six black teens who have now been indicted on felony charges of aggravated battery and conspiracy.

In the event that you have not been following this case, the morning after a black student sat under a tree on the campus where white students traditionally congregated, three nooses – lynching symbols in the old South – were hung in the tree, according to The Associated Press. Students accused of placing them were suspended from the school for a short period, but tensions increased. Fights between black and white students were reported on and off campus.

Then, on Dec. 4, the six black students were accused of jumping Barker, and beating and kicking him at the high school. Barker was treated at a hospital emergency room and went to a school function that same night. Bell, a star football player who was being courted by UCLA and Louisiana State University, was found guilty by an all-white jury, the AP reported.

Barker had supported other white students who were responsible for hanging the nooses on the tree, and had been calling black students the n-word on the high school campus.

Consistent with the tradition of biased law enforcement and prejudicial jurisprudence within Jena, prior to the beating of Barker, a member of the Jena Six, Robert Bailey, was beaten by white students at a party at the Jena Fair Barn on December 1, 2006.

According to Caseptla Bailey, Robert’s mother, the police officers responding to the scene told Robert and his black friends that they needed to get back to their part of town. No charges were pressed against the perpetrators of Robert Bailey’s beating.

The following day, Robert and two friends were at a local convenience store when Matt Windham, one of the white males who had attacked Bailey the previous evening, confronted them. A fight broke out, and Windham retrieved a sawed-off shotgun from his truck. Bailey was able to wrestle away the gun. Once again, no charges were pressed against the white perpetrator.

It was not until Justin Barker became a victim that the wheels of alleged justice begin to grind in Jena.

Mychal Bell was the first of the Jena Six to stand trial for the assault against Barker. A black public defender, Blaine Williams, whose incompetence is only eclipsed by his insensitivity, failed to request a change of venue for the trial and failed to challenge the all-white jury chosen to deliberate the charges. In addition, the jury in question featured a sole male juror, who happened to be a friend and former classmate of Justin Barker’s father, David Barker.

The legal plot thickened when Bell’s parents were put on the witness list, and pursuant to a judicial order were banned from being in the courtroom during the trial because they were potential witnesses. In true Jena style, however, Justin Barker was allowed to be present throughout the entire trial, despite the fact that he himself was a witness.

Mychal Bell, though only 16 at the time of the assault, was tried as an adult for attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy. He was subsequently convicted of reduced charges of aggravated, second-degree battery and conspiracy. Unable to raise the $90,000 bail, he remains in jail awaiting his Sept. 20 sentencing, at which he may face up to 22 years in prison.

The stench of injustice has spurred Tina Jones and the families of the remaining defendants to reach out for help.

“The financial support is crucial for us to be able to afford good attorneys for our children; the public defender in Mychal’s case was incompetent,” she said.

As she awaits a trial date to be set for her son, her emotions fluctuate.

“Sometimes I just want them to set the date so it can be over, but at the same time I know that as far as this system is concerned, he was guilty from day one,” she said.

I can hear the pain in her voice as she accepts that her child’s destiny is no longer under her control. Despite this painful resolution, she draws a sense of satisfaction from the attention the case has garnered.

“This sort of thing has gone on for years. This time they just happened to pick the wrong six,” she said.

In late July of this year, the White Tree at Jena High School was finally cut down. Though the tree is gone, its racist roots remain firmly planted within the social fiber of Jena.

The removal of a tree cannot ease the pain of a mother of a son whose bright future may be compromised forever.

As Tina Jones and the other family members of the Jena Six seek justice for their own, we must realize that their fight is our fight.

For more information, contact The Jena Six Defense Committee, PO Box 2798, Jena, La. 71342 or This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it .

To review and/or sign a petition asking the U.S. Department of Justice to review the Jena Six prosecutions, log onto http://www.petitiononline.com/aZ51CqmR/petition.html.  

Richard McCulloch is the executive director of the School of Health Careers in Lauderdale Lakes. He may be contacted at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Pictured at the top of the story is a shade tree similar to the one that was cut down at Jena High School. Pictured in the middle of the story is Tina Jones, left, and an unidentified organizer of a Jena Six rally, right.

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