Chanting civil rights slogans and swaying to "We Shall Overcome," hundreds clad in black gathered on the campuses of Morgan State and Coppin State universities yesterday calling for justice for the Jena 6.
They were college students, university administrators, local elected leaders and activists stung by the images of nooses dangling from a schoolyard tree last year in Jena, La., and outraged at the prosecution of six black teens in a case they said exemplifies racism and unequal justice permeating American society.
"This is much bigger than Jena," said M.K. Asante Jr., an English professor at Morgan State University, who required his students to attend the rally.
"There are Jena 6 cases happening in Maryland, in Pennsylvania and around this country," he said. "What we need to do is focus all our energy on the institutional problems that allowed Jena to happen. Instead of being a society that responds to symptoms, we need to fight the deeper problems such as the huge disparities in the criminal justice system."
From Baltimore to Baton Rouge, protesters held rallies in support of the six black students charged with the attempted murder of a white classmate after a schoolyard brawl. They intended to add their voices to the collective cry of thousands of civil rights demonstrators who converged yesterday on Jena, a tiny sawmill town of 3,000.
Baltimore's events included huge rallies at local colleges and informal gatherings at high schools. Last night, a teach-in was held at New Shiloh Baptist Church, hosted by radio personalities, fraternities and sororities and the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Everywhere, protesters wore black in a show of solidarity.
"We are here to support our brothers and sisters in Jena. If we don't stand up for justice, who will?" said Jasmine Hazel, a Morgan senior and student government association president. "This is not about black, this is not about white. This is about justice."
The impassioned crowd in front of Morgan's Morris A. Soper Library responded with chants of "We want justice" and "No justice, no peace."
During the two-hour program, a diverse group of demonstrators hoisted signs reading, "Free the Jena 6," and "Bmore 4 Jena." At times, protesters thrust their fists in the air shouting "black power."
"The civil rights movement started with students," roared Akhenaton Bonaparte IV, a student services coordinator at Morgan. "We stand here today in the presence of our ancestors who are watching down on us, and we shall not be moved."
Jessica Harris, a Morgan senior and one of the rally's organizers, implored her fellow students to remain activists well after the demonstration.
"Black folks love to sit around and complain to ourselves," she told the crowd, who responded with rousing applause. "We have been complaining for years, and what do we do? Do something!"
She then told the audience that a collection bucket was making its way through the crowd to generate money for the legal expenses of the six defendants. She urged students to join a letter-writing campaign to encourage Louisiana officials to intervene in the case.
"All you have to do is write a letter," she said. "Don't even worry about a stamp. We'll mail it for you."
Racial tensions in Jena boiled over last year after black students asked officials at the town's high school for permission to sit under the campus' so-called white tree. The next day, three nooses appeared dangling from its branches.
The schools superintendent called the incident a prank, but others were furious.
The incident sparked a series of fights between black and white students. Police say during one brawl, six black students attacked a white classmate, beating him unconscious. The white student was taken to the hospital and soon released, while the black teens were charged with attempted murder.
The charges were later reduced, but some observers grew angry that in previous fights none of the white teens faced serious charges.
The Jena 6 rallying cry took hold in July when an all-white jury convicted Mychal Bell, 17, of aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy charges. An appeals court reversed the conviction last week, but Bell -- who was tried as an adult -- remains in jail, unable to post $90,000 bond.
At Coppin yesterday, several hundred used the protest as an opportunity to highlight the injustices they see facing African-Americans in Baltimore, from the city's failing schools to its crime problem.
"Are you ready to get off the sidelines and start talking about what we need to do as a people?" asked Minister Carlos Muhammad, of the Nation of Islam in Baltimore. "Can we have this same demonstration to walk block by block down these streets to stop this senseless killing?"
Organizers said they plan to meet next week to continue the discussion of the troubles in Jena and Baltimore.
Most people are upset, but complacent, said Yvette Macon, who attended the Coppin rally on her lunch hour.
"I hope this will be different," said Macon, who works in the mayor's employment office in Baltimore. "This is happening today. The same hatred, the same Jim Crow, the same Klan is still in place in the United States today."
Marc Clarke, host of 92Q's Big Phat Morning Show, said he thinks the Jena 6 resonated with young people unlike any other recent civil rights issue. Talk of the case has dominated the airwaves in recent weeks.
"Once people heard that these kids actually had to ask permission to sit under a tree in Jena, they were stunned," he said. "It was so seemingly unbelievable, but true. Then it really hit home."
Among the throng at Coppin were 11th-grade English students from Coppin Academy, wearing yellow-and-gray plaid uniforms.
Their teacher, Zsun-nee Miller-Matema, said the rally was not only an educational opportunity, but also a motivational tool.
"These children need a rallying call," she said. "And this is it. I want them to be proactive, educated and empowered."
Sade Steele, 16, said she was proud to attend the demonstration.
"I think we really feel a responsibility as young people to make sure this kind of hatred doesn't happen again when we are 30 or 35," she said. "We need to stop it."