State of the Union January/February 2008

The Truth About Jena

Why America’s black-and-white narratives about race don’t reflect reality

Walters remained convinced that everything he did in the case of the Jena Six was “absolutely 100 percent correct—without question.” Never mind that even some of Walters’s white friends say he charged too severely, not least because the victim was able to attend a school function that night. Walters believed his decision to charge Bell as an adult with attempted murder reflects both the facts of the case, including Bell’s history, and the values that his community holds dear—“conservative,” “help-oriented,” and “Christian.” (I spotted a photocopy of the Ten Commandments hanging on the courthouse bulletin board, next to the bail-bondsman and paternity-testing ads.)

Walters says he does not look at race in his prosecutions. But that does not mean the racial boundaries of his community do not influence him. Whites outnumber blacks by 7-to-1 in the parish; beyond one black member apiece on the 10-member school board and on the 10-member police jury—both from a racially gerrymandered ward—no black has a position of power. There are four black teachers on a parish staff of 196. Black-owned businesses? Sammy Franklin could think of two: a car-detailer and a funeral home.

As for Walters himself, his world—like that of many white Americans—is white, as is most of his neighborhood. The restaurants he frequents rarely have black employees or black patrons. The worshippers at his church are white, as are the small-town-elite circles in which he moves. In 17 years, he says, he has never had a black employee, beyond some who helped him “privately.” He offered as evidence of Jena’s “perfect” race relations that the high school’s white quarterback throws to both black and white players. The white kids who hung the nooses were of Walters’s world—indeed, one of their families attends his church. Mychal Bell was, in essence, a stranger.

That reality was not lost on Jena’s black residents, including Mychal Bell’s mother. She told me a story about going to pick up Mychal’s grades in 2006, before he “got locked up.” Mychal had been failing math, and the teacher was regularly sending him to the principal’s office for clowning around and sleeping. As Bell stood in line, she says, she watched the teacher, who was white, embrace and smile at Jena’s better-off whites, even as she greeted black and lower-class white parents much less warmly. Bell confronted her: “I said, ‘You ain’t got no business being around black kids, because you don’t even want to teach them. You just showed your cards right here: everyone you knew—everyone you knew who got money—they was all good with you.’”

The teacher, Kim Franklin, happens to be married to Craig Franklin, the assistant editor and heir apparent of The Jena Times, which has presented uncritically Walters’s account of the events. (In an op-ed for The Christian Science Monitor, Craig Franklin dismissed the entire affair as journalistic malfeasance, calling Jena a place “where friends are friends regardless of race.”) Kim Franklin says she has always treated all of her students the same, and she and Melissa Bell clearly don’t like each other. But their polarized perceptions, as much as the legal encounter between Walters and Bell, seemed to capture the competing truths of the Jena saga: Bell’s denial of her son’s responsibility, and the town’s denial of its racial cliquishness. The white residents’ loving solicitousness toward their own was subtler than crude racism—which Jena also had—but no less powerful. It reflected a conception of “separate but equal” communities that ultimately weren’t equal at all. Witness the town’s selectively fluid geography: even as black areas have remained unincorporated—unable to vote for mayor or police chief, ineligible for town services like garbage collection—in 2005 Jena annexed a new subdivision to the north of “Snob Hill.”

On September 20, for a span of hours, Jena’s demography inverted: suddenly, the protesters against the status quo outnumbered its defenders by at least 6-to-1. But although the protesters passed right over the town lines, they didn’t take up the cause of moving them. For all its noise, the Jena Six movement lacked a clear sense of where to apply its force. It probably helped reduce the charges against the boys, although Walters denies that public pressure swayed him. Vigorous defense lawyering got Bell’s conviction as an adult overturned earlier that month. And it’s unlikely that, at least in Jena, public officials will treat noose-hanging lightly in the future. But so much else was left untouched. The protesters didn’t press to improve the parish’s indigent-defense system, poor even by the standards of Louisiana; didn’t ask why two schools in the southern part of the parish are still effectively segregated, providing an escape valve for white Jena parents who wish to avoid sending their children to integrated schools; and didn’t talk about the habitual-offender law Walters used to send a peer of Bell’s father to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for life for three nonviolent offenses. “We will not stop marching until justice runs down like waters,” Jesse Jackson said. But the Jena Six movement seemed like a mighty flood that left bent and broken twigs in its wake—and the contours of the riverbanks unchanged.

Less surprising is that the movement avoided the other side of Mychal Bell’s story: his own choices, for starters, or the link between the generational disintegration of black families and black incarceration. The lip service about not excusing Bell’s past or the boys’ attack on Barker didn’t diminish the hagiography, which climaxed in a standing ovation for two of the Jena Six when they appeared as presenters at the Black Entertainment Television awards (dressed in hip-hop gear, which coach Fowler says they never wore in Jena).

Anlynne Hart, the mother of Bell’s earlier victim, says his parents should have acknowledged his history up front and declared that he deserved help in spite of it. But would such a movement have grown around an icon with a tragic flaw? There is a reason we tell these stories as we do. On Melissa Bell’s wall hung a commendatory plaque from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization Martin Luther King Jr. co-founded and led. Simply by mothering Mychal and standing by him, she became a heroine of this civil-rights movement, an elevation that perhaps spoke more to its character than to hers.

On the gray day when I met Melissa Bell, her mood was as dismal as the weather. Her son’s future seemed unpredictable. His conviction in the Justin Barker case had been overturned on the grounds that he shouldn’t have been tried as an adult, but he faced retrial as a juvenile. He had come home in September after more than nine months in prison—then been returned to custody two weeks later because of his previous juvenile offenses. He had missed Christmas and his birthday and at least one U.S. Army National Combine game, a national forum where high-school players show their stuff. He was, even at that moment, missing his senior season of football, and all the promise that had portended.

One weekend last year, Marcus Jones drove north from Jena to visit his son in prison. He was excited: a recruitment letter for Bell had come from LSU, whose football team is revered here.

“Now this is the college,” he told Mychal, handing him the letter. He realized his mistake only with his son’s rueful reaction: “Oh Lord, that was a dream right there.”

Instead of a bright future, as Jones had initially thought, the letter evidenced only how much Bell had thrown away—or had had taken from him, depending on whose version you believed. From then on, Jones said, when Bell asked whether other letters had come, his mother lied and said no.

But in December, Bell’s forecast changed. Days before his trial was scheduled to start, he and Walters made a deal: Bell pleaded guilty to second-degree battery, a misdemeanor; acknowledged in open court that he had punched Barker; and agreed to testify against his co-defendants should they go to trial. He was sentenced to 18 months, including time served, which means he should be out by summer. Even as both sides claimed victory of a sort, it was hard to escape the sense that they had fought to an exhausted draw.

Under the terms of the deal, Bell will be admitted into a high school yet to be determined, which means he could be playing football again by fall. He now has a second chance at that LSU scholarship—to the extent, that is, that he ever had a chance at all.

As it turns out, Fowler, Bell’s former coach, didn’t think Bell would make it to LSU, as he told me when we met in October. The rain was beating through the pine thicket around his home, and dark had fallen early. His cat, Fancy, nestled on his belly. Fowler, who spent his life in sports and education, had retired prematurely at the end of the school year, his spirit broken in part by the jailing of Bell and two other players who were part of the Jena Six. He struck me as wanting to unburden himself—even if doing so exposed his own clay feet.

As talented and versatile as Bell was, Fowler said, at 5 feet 9 inches or so, and maybe 190 pounds, he probably wasn’t big enough for LSU, and likely could have played only for a Division II or a small Division I school. Those prized recruitment letters? Fowler, like every other coach, put his best players’ names out; the schools then blanketed prospects with pro forma letters of interest. “I’m gonna tell you, these colleges, they send 1,000 a day,” Fowler said. Until the college recruiters look at game film, they can’t say whether they’re truly interested or not.

Bell and the other players didn’t know that, and Fowler and the other coaches didn’t tell them. During the off- season, the letters helped propel the kids through the tedium of running and lifting weights—keeping them working, so their high-school teams could keep on winning.

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Amy Waldman is an Atlantic national correspondent.

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