In the fall of 2006, Mychal Bell was a football hero, and his hometown, Jena, Louisiana, loved him for it. As his high-school team posted its best season in six years, Bell scored 21 touchdowns, rushed for 1,006 yards, and was named player of the week three times by The Jena Times. The paper celebrated his triumphs in articles and photographs, including a dramatic one in which Bell, who’s black, stiff-arms a white defender by clutching his face guard. But within weeks after the season’s end, Bell was transformed into a villain, accused of knocking out a white student, Justin Barker, who was then beaten by a group of black students. The parish’s white district attorney charged Bell and five others with attempted second-degree murder. Six months later—after the DA had reduced the charges against Bell—a white jury convicted him, as an adult, of aggravated second-degree battery, a crime that carried a possible 22-year prison sentence. By then, he, along with his co-defendants, had been transformed yet again: together, they’d been dubbed the Jena Six and had become icons of a 21st-century civil-rights movement.
That movement swelled through an electronic underground of blogs and black radio and Web sites, then burst into the national spotlight. On September 20, 2007, it culminated in a protest march that drew some 20,000 people to Jena, a town of roughly 3,000. The movement’s grievance wasn’t just the severe treatment of the Jena Six, but the light treatment of white youths who’d been in fights or hung nooses on a school tree—the “white tree”—after a black student asked if he could sit under it. Together, the galvanizing facts tapped into a larger ache: the record incarceration of African American males—the shift “from plantations to penitentiaries,” as the Reverend Al Sharpton put it at the protest. All of the frustration at the disproportionate imprisonment of black men seemed to find its way to Jena, as if here, at last, in a small town’s idea of justice, was an explanation. At home and around the world, the media found answers in the black-and-white clarity of Race Hate in America, as the British Broadcasting Corporation called an early documentary.