JENA, La. – It had many of the signs of the early civil rights protests — militant slogans, upraised clenched fists and multitudes of police — but it had none of the atmosphere of those hate and fear-drenched campaigns in Selma, Little Rock and Montgomery.
Tens of thousands of protesters stormed this tiny Louisiana town on Thursday, rallying against what they see as a double standard of justice for blacks and whites.
• Click here to view photos.
But unlike the protests that became landmarks for civil rights when fire hoses and police dogs greeted demonstrators, Thursday's rally to support six black teenagers facing aggravated battery or attempted murder charges after a school fight had a festive air and a laid-back demeanor.
"It was a great day," said Denise Broussard, of Lafayette, La. "I really felt a sense of purpose and commitment, but it was also a lot of fun. I met great people and made some good friends."
The plight of the so-called Jena Six, a group of black teens initially charged with attempted murder in the beating of a white classmate, became a flashpoint for one of the biggest civil rights demonstrations in years.
Old-guard lions like the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton joined scores of college students bused in from across the nation who said they wanted to make a stand for racial equality just as their parents did in the 1950s and '60s.
But while those early protesters dodged police batons and listened to snarled insults from the white population, on Thursday demonstrators petted police horses, chatted with cops, and posed by the Jena Police Department sign.
"It was a big event for us," said Donna Clark, who traveled from Atlanta, with her husband and four daughters ages 1- through 6-years old. "We got matching T-shirts and drove all night. It's exciting and I think the girls can say later they were part of history."
The city put out portable toilets and flashing signs to direct demonstrators to various locations. The Red Cross set up 11 first aid and comfort stations around town.
"We're here to deliver humanitarian aid — water, snacks if people need them — and first aid if it's needed," said Red Cross volunteer Don Louretzann, 31, of Washington, D.C. "We want to make sure everyone has a good time and is safe."
People began gathering before dawn; state police put attendance between 15,000 and 20,000. Organizers said 50,000.
Law enforcement officials said the biggest problem was people with heat-related problems.
"It's been a very peaceful and happy crowd," said Sgt. Julie Lewis of the Louisiana State Police. "Really these are very, very nice people. They are welcome in Louisiana any time."
Demonstrators even bagged trash throughout the day, leaving little for officials to clean up after the demonstration.
Jena residents, resentful of the massive protest in their little town and the racist label it had stamped them with, were scarce during the day's demonstrations. Businesses closed, so did the library, schools, city offices and the courthouse.
"I don't mind them demonstrating," said Ricky Coleman, 46, a native. "I believe in people standing up for what they think is right. But this isn't a racist town. It's a small place and we all get along."
The cause of Thursday's demonstrations dates to August 2006, when a black Jena High School student asked the principal whether blacks could sit under a shade tree that was a frequent gathering place for whites. He was told yes. Nooses appeared in the tree the day after he sat there. Three white students were suspended but not criminally prosecuted. LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters said this week he could find no state law that would allow him to prosecute them for what he called a despicable action.
The noose incident was followed by fights between blacks and whites, culminating in December's attack on white student Justin Barker, who was knocked unconscious. According to court testimony, his face was swollen and bloodied, but he was able to attend a school function that night.
Six black teens were arrested. Five were originally charged with attempted second-degree murder — charges that have since been reduced for four of them. The sixth was booked as a juvenile on sealed charges.
Martin Luther King III, son of the slain civil rights leader, said punishment of some sort may be in order for the six defendants, but "the justice system isn't applied the same to all crimes and all people."
The only strident note came at the end of the rally when a group of black panthers took the microphone and led the crowd in "Black Power" chants.
"We're nonviolent when people are nonviolent with us," one speaker said. "We're not nonviolent with people that are violent with us."
The speaker cautioned people they were not using the demonstration as they should.
"We can't turn this into a picnic, we can't turn this into a barbecue," he shouted.
The harangue drew a large police presence, but most of the dwindling crowd ignored it as they repacked ice chests, gathered up chairs and children and went looking for their buses.
In Washington, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee said he would hold hearings on the case, though he did not set a date or say if the prosecutor would be called to testify.
Walters, the district attorney, has usually declined to discuss the case publicly. But on the eve of the demonstrations, he denied the charges against the teens were race-related and lamented that Barker, the victim of the beating, has been reduced to "a footnote" while protesters generate sympathy for his alleged attackers.
President Bush said he understood the emotions and the FBI was monitoring the situation.
"The events in Louisiana have saddened me," the president told reporters at the White House. "All of us in America want there to be, you know, fairness when it comes to justice."
Mychal Bell, now 17, is the only one of the defendants to be tried. He was convicted of aggravated second-degree battery, but his conviction was tossed last week by a state appeals court that said Bell, who was 16 at the time of the beating, could not be tried as an adult on that charge.
Bell had been arrested on juvenile charges including battery and criminal damage to property, and was on probation at the time Barker was beaten. He remained in jail pending an appeal by prosecutors. An appellate court on Thursday ordered a hearing to be held within three days on his request for release. The other five defendants are free on bond.
Alecea Rush, 21, a senior at Prairie View A&M University in Texas, said her grandmother used to tell her stories about the civil rights movement, including one in which she witnessed a lynching in Oklahoma City.
"I thought about every one of those stories being out here today," Rush said. "I never really felt the significance until today."