State of the Union January/February 2008

The Truth About Jena

Why America’s black-and-white narratives about race don’t reflect reality
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The district attorney, J. Reed Walters, does not know whether he ever saw Bell play, since he and his wife (who works for the school system) took a break from games after their sons graduated from Jena High. Nearly four decades earlier, Walters had played high-school football himself, in the nearby town of Olla, but he was no Mychal Bell. His aspirations lay elsewhere, in becoming a lawyer. He loves being a small-town prosecutor, and having never craved the spotlight, he feels only “puzzlement” at the global storm he generated. But thanks to the legal discretion that Louisiana grants its district attorneys, it is Walters’s character, not any “Jim Crow” statute, that has shaped the course of Bell’s case. That character, in turn, reflects in no small measure the character of his community.

Raised in Olla by a schoolteacher mother and a father who worked in the timber industry, Walters has spent most of his life in LaSalle Parish. As he entered adolescence, the parish, like many places across the South, was fighting a rear-guard action against school desegregation, a battle chronicled with unabashed bias in its newspaper. The first blacks didn’t enter Jena High until 1969, 15 years after Brown v. Board of Education. The following year, the first black faces appeared in the football team photo; from what I could see, those players also integrated the pages of The Jena Times, which was owned and edited then, as now, by Sammy Franklin. A 1971 photo of Olla’s high-school football team included Walters, then in 10th grade, and one black player. In that same issue, a columnist argued that just because “a Black man cannot work as well as can a White with ideas, symbols, numbers and the like,” he was not inferior—just different.

Over the next decades, Jena settled into its post-segregation identity. Blacks could walk in the front door of the Burger Barn, instead of going to a side window. Relations were cordial, barring a few incidents of white-on-black violence recounted with the horror of legend and occasional school fights stemming from interracial dating. Gas-and-oil exploration joined timber as a stalwart of the economy. Walters settled in Jena in 1981, after law school at Louisiana State University, and has never left. He raised his sons in a large house with a swimming pool on “Snob Hill,” as Jena’s wealthier section is called. He handled the routine cases of a small-town lawyer, and was also drafted into defending the poor. In fact, Walters’s sense that he was winning too many cases for his indigent clients helped inspire his run for district attorney. “Walters Elected D.A., LaSalle Goes for Duke,” reported The Jena Times on October 10, 1990. Sixty-eight percent of voters in LaSalle Parish had turned out, and 63 percent of them had voted for David Duke, the ex-Klansman, for U.S. senator, giving him one of his highest margins in the state. Walters won 51.6 percent of the vote—3,212 votes. By the time Mychal Bell turned 16, Walters had been reelected twice. By statute, he also advises the police jury (akin to a parish council), the school board, and the hospital. The lifelong son of the parish has become a town father.

A number of those town fathers—the police chief; Sammy Franklin of The Jena Times; Walters himself—attend the same church, Midway Baptist, which sits on Highway 84. Midway is among Jena’s larger and more prosperous churches, and Walters is among its pillars. A licensed minister who pinch-hits for the preacher, he also sings (off-key, by his own admission) in the choir, heads its pastor-search committee, and teaches Bible study twice a week. Along with the small-town culture in which he was raised, Walters’s Southern Baptist creed—his certainty of the path to eternal salvation—helps to explain him: in matters of faith, or law, he has the confidence of his convictions.

On the October Sunday morning when I visited, he began Bible study by taking attendance (six adults, including his wife) then turned to the Sermon on the Mount, explaining why Jesus had come to reconcile man to the law of God. Human beings who kept trying to bend the law to their convenience and desires needed an “attitude adjustment,” he said, offering a modern example of bending the law: even though the speed limit is 55, we interpret it as 64 because that’s what will trigger a ticket.

Walters believes time is “critically short” before the Second Coming, when everyone will have to stand before Jesus, and all must perfect themselves for that moment. He strives for that perfection—taking Jesus’ injunction against tearing asunder “what God has joined” so literally, for example, that he frets about the prospect of ever having to pronounce divorces. He actually tries to drive 55. When I asked if he had ever made a mistake, he thought for a moment, then cited a 25-year-old case in which he had misread a report and failed to file a lawsuit in time.

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