Racism & Resistance in Louisiana: How a ‘White Tree’ Led to the Trial of Six Black Youth

by Jordan Flaherty

Black students at a Jena, Louisiana, high school were threatened for sitting under a tree reserved for white students. Photo: Mavis Yorks.
Black students at a Jena, Louisiana, high school protest racist court rulings. Photo: Mavis Yorks.

A year ago, in the small northern Louisiana town of Jena, a group of white students hung three nooses (ropes tied in a loop) from a tree in front of Jena High School. Now six black students who spoke up against racism are facing a lifetime in prison.

The nooses were hung after a black student asked permission to sit under a tree that had been reserve by tradition for white students only. In response to the nooses, nearly every black student in the school stood under the tree in an act of protest. The town’s district attorney quickly arrived, along with police officers, and spoke in a school assembly. Like the schoolyard, the assembly was also divided by race, with the black students on one side and the white students on the other. District Attorney Reed Walters told the black students to stop making trouble.

“I can make your lives disappear with a stroke of a pen,” he said.

The white students who confessed to hanging the nooses were suspended from school for three days. Then, when white students beat up a black student, one of the white students was put on probation. When a white former student threatened two black students with a shotgun, he received no punishment. But, after these events, when black students got into a fight with a white student, six black youths were charged with attempted murder and now may face a lifetime in prison. The white student was hospitalized for a short time after the fight and was socializing with friends later that evening.

One of the Jena Six students, Bryant Purvis, said, “I think the district attorney is pinning it on us to make an example of us. In Jena, people get accused of things they didn’t do a lot.” People from around the world have heard about the case and have joined to support the call to “Free the Jena Six!”


September 2006
A black student asks to sit under a tree where white students usually sit. The administration tells the black students to sit wherever they like. The next day, three ropes tied into nooses are found hanging from the tree. Nooses often represent lynching or when black people have been hanged and murdered. The white students who hung the ropes are suspended for three days.

December 2006
Six black students are arrested after a school fight in which a white student is beaten.

July 2007
One of the black students in the fight, Mychal Bell, 17, is convicted by an all-white jury of aggravated battery (beating) and conspiracy. His tennis shoes are considered “dangerous weapons.” Bell may get twenty-two years in prison.

August 2007
The Congressional Black Caucus of the U.S. Congress calls for the charges to be dropped. More than 60,000 signatures are collected asking Louisiana’s governor to pardon the Jena Six.

Fall 2007
The cases of the five other students are scheduled to be heard in court.

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