Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The White Tree: Remembering Jena

The White Tree (2011), Ramona Dallum Lindsey
Racism and hate are an established part of the United States of America’s history.  America’s southern  states’ were built on an agrarian economy based on slave labor.   This economy thrived due to the establishment of a class system based on race. This system led to legalized inequality favoring the white privileged class and suppressing  the black class.  Political, military and social battles have ensued throughout  America’s history to right this imbalance.  The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s took great steps towards providing racial equality.  However, America still has issues of racial inequality to address.    This became evident in Jena, Louisiana during the fall of 2006.  A series of incidents in that small Louisiana town brought to light America’s continued need to address her problem of hate.

There are various interpretations of the events that led to what became known as the Jena 6.  However all accounts began with a tree growing on the campus of Jena’s desegregated high school with a very small percentage of black students.    The tree was known as the “White Tree”.  Only white students were allowed to sit beneath its shade.   At the beginning of the school year a small group of black freshman students attempted to  sit under the tree.  The following day nooses hung  from the tree.  Historically nooses where used as a form of intimidation to prevent  blacks from challenging the written and unwritten laws maintaining Jim Crow laws separating the races.  The principal of Jena High School expelled the white students responsible for hanging the nooses.  However, Jena’s school superintendent reinstated the students  saying that the white students were only participating in a youthful prank not warranting expulsion.

The black community was in an uproar over their perceived mishandling of the situation.  The small town was soon divided across racial lines.   Several altercations occurred between white and black students.  In many of these, the local justice system released with warnings white students accused of inciting altercations while black students faced harsher punishments.  The trouble in Jena reached a climax when 5 black students beat a white student on the school campus.  There were discrepancies regarding the reason for the attack.  Nonetheless, the majority of the black students were charged with attempted murder and jailed.  This was in stark contrast to white students who were released after beating a black student in an earlier separate, unrelated   altercation.  This unequal justice led to the largest civil rights march since the 1960s.

The White Tree stands as a stark reminder to the consequences when hate is not confronted.  Trees naturally provide shelter to all creatures.  The tree in Jena was used unnaturally to separate.  Our nation’s youth depend on adults to create systems that protect all of them regardless of class, race, or gender.  When those systems do not work everyone is negatively impacted.  The White Tree forces us to remember the young lives damaged because of adults’ inability to correct the issues of racism. Justin Barker (17), Robert Bailey (17), Mychal Bell (16), Carwin Jones (18), Bryant Purvis (17), Jesse Ray Beard (14), and Theo Shaw (17) stand as reminders for adults to face and deal with the reality of racism.

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