JENA, La. -- Drawn by the disturbing symbol of three lynching nooses dangling from a tree and greeted by Confederate flags displayed along their route, tens of thousands from across the nation poured into this racially tense Deep South town yesterday to stage the largest nonviolent civil rights demonstration in years against what they regard as glaring racial injustices here.
Cheerfully defying obstacles placed in their way by town officials, such as a line of portable toilets placed directly in front of the courthouse steps where the demonstration was held, the protesters celebrated what the Rev. Al Sharpton described as the birth of a "new civil rights movement for the 21st century," driven by black Internet blogs, e-mail and talk radio more than any traditional civil rights leader.
Many of the participants traveled 20 hours or more by bus from both coasts and even Alaska to arrive at dawn for the six-hour rally, which featured Sharpton, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Martin Luther King III, radio personality Michael Baisden and dozens of other black leaders and celebrities.
"The civil rights movement is finally catching up with Jena," declared Ella Bell King, 59, a resident of Alexandria, La., who slept overnight with relatives in front of the courthouse. "Something like this should have happened here 40 years ago."
The protesters came to decry the prosecution of the Jena 6 - six black high school students who were initially charged with attempted murder for beating a white student last December, even though the victim was treated and released at a local hospital. The charge was later reduced to the lesser felony of aggravated second-degree battery.
The demonstrators came as well to criticize the refusal of the local district attorney, Reed Walters, to press similarly serious criminal charges against white youths who attacked blacks.
And they came to defy the symbolism of Jena's "white tree" - a shade tree at the high school traditionally reserved for whites where, as the Chicago Tribune first reported last May, all of Jena's troubles began.
One year ago, after a black student asked an administrator's permission to sit under the tree - and was told he could sit wherever he liked - the next day three white students hung nooses from the tree's branches.
The local school superintendent dismissed the incident as a youthful prank and refused to expel the white students involved, outraging blacks who were offended by the potent lynching imagery. Months of racial unrest followed in the town, culminating in the December beating.
School officials cut down the tree in July, hoping to eliminate it as a focus of protests. But the demonstrators were undeterred, chanting and marching 12 abreast in a mile-long procession through the streets from the courthouse to the high school courtyard, where they ringed the spot where the tree used to stand.
Louisiana state police estimated that the crowd numbered 15,000 to 20,000 people, but organizers said they believed there were at least twice that many demonstrators filling this two-stoplight town of 3,000.
"Everybody should be able to sit under a tree if they want," said Alonte Carpenter, 13, who rode for 11 hours from Nashville, Tenn., with his parents and siblings for the march.
"I have growing boys," said his father, Karl Carpenter, 43, an executive with a semiconductor company. "What happened to the Jena 6 could happen to my kids. ... This is an opportunity for our kids to see other people like themselves stand up for what is right."
Similar sentiments were heard repeatedly yesterday as the demonstrators, nearly all of them African-Americans wearing black T-shirts with slogans such as "Enough is enough" and "Free the Jena 6," marched past white Jena residents who glared at them from their front porches.
"They have the freedom to march and freedom of speech, but our town is not racist like this is being depicted," said a white resident who would identify himself only as Jay. "The nooses were just a joke."
No officials of the town, which is 85 percent white, offered any comment about yesterday's march. In the past, they have angrily insisted that Jena suffers from no racial tensions.
But some of the demonstrators, eyeing the wall of portable toilets and the town's failure to set out any trash receptacles to accommodate the crowds, sharply disagreed.
"They want to see a mess left so they can complain how we trashed the place," said Earnestine Hodnett, 58, of Virginia Beach, Va., "They want this demonstration to fail."
Yet even before the marchers began heading home yesterday evening, there were signs that the demonstration was having effects.
President Bush offered his first comment about the Jena case at a news conference.
"The events in Louisiana have saddened me," he said. ""... And all of us in America want there to be, you know, fairness when it comes to justice."
Meanwhile, a Louisiana state appeals court ordered that a bond hearing must be held within 72 hours for Mychal Bell, 17, the only one of the six black students to have been tried so far and the only one still in jail, unable to post a $90,000 bond.
Last week, the same appeals court vacated Bell's June conviction for aggravated second-degree battery, ruling that Walters had improperly prosecuted him as an adult rather a juvenile. Walters has vowed to appeal that ruling and has initiated juvenile proceedings against Bell. He also said yesterday that he would vigorously pursue his cases against the rest of the defendants, insisting that their white victim had been forgotten amid all the controversy.
Howard Witt writes for the Chicago Tribune.