Demonstrators descend on Louisiana town

Tribune senior correspondent

JENA, La. — In a procession 2 miles long, tens of thousands of civil rights demonstrators from around the nation marched this morning from the courthouse of this racially embattled town to the schoolyard where nooses were hung from a tree last year as a warning to black students.

Chanting "No justice, no peace," the black-clad demonstrators walked down quiet residential streets as homeowners somberly watched from their front steps, their arms crossed in front of them.

The marchers included fathers carrying children on their shoulders, infants in strollers and old people in wheelchairs. Their rally point was the spot where the noose-bearing tree once stood. The tree has since been cut down by local authorities.

Earlier this morning, the demonstrators, most of them riding buses all night, descended on Jena for what was being regarded as the largest civil rights demonstration in years.

A seemingly endless convoy of buses from black colleges and black churches around the country jammed the two two-lane highways leading into the town square, where they dropped off their passengers in front of the courthouse.

The emptied buses moved on to make way for still more buses carrying more demonstrators, who are joining Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Jesse Jackson and others to support six black teenagers charged with felonies after the beating of a white student.

Racial tensions began to build a year ago in the town after three white high schoolers hung nooses from a shade tree in a warning to stay away directed at black students. Schools Supt. Roy Breithaupt dismissed the incident as an "adolescent prank" and declined to expel the white students, outraging many African-American residents and setting off months of racial fights on and off the campus.

Estimates of today's expected crowd ranged to up to 50,000. In many ways it was a spontaneous, largely unorganized demonstration, fueled by the Internet.

Lines were being clearly drawn. Demonstrators were expected to vastly outnumber Jena's nearly all-white population, most of whom feel they are being unfairly portrayed as racist.

"God has the power to wipe Jena, Louisiana, off the map," said Minister Deric Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam in Houston, as he spoke in front of the courthouse to a crowd whose view of him was partially obstructed by 40 strategically placed portable toilets set up by town officials.

He told the early crowd that he was delivering a message from Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, "If they don't give justice, watch what God Almighty will do."

Despite long hours of travel, there were few signs of weariness.

"I have growing boys," said Karl Carpenter, 43, an executive with a semiconductor company who decided "at the last minute" to drive his wife and four children from Nashville to Jena. "What happened to the kids here could happen to my kids. . . . This is an opportunity for our kids to see other people like themselves stand up for what is right."

Earnestine Hodnett, 58, of Virginia Beach, Va., said that when she heard about the march: "I just knew I had to come. I feel very proud today because it was difficult to get our people to come together and do it in a nonviolent fashion."

But she said officials were insulting the demonstrators with the positioning of the toilets and absence of trash receptacles. "They want to see a mess left so they can complain how we trashed the place. They want this demonstration to fail," she said.

Ella Bell King, 59, of Alexandria, La., slept overnight with other family members in front of the courthouse. "The civil rights movement is finally catching up with Jena," she said. "Something like this should have happened here 40 years ago.

"There are two laws here, one for the blacks and one for the whites."

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