WASHINGTON – A video in which rapper-actor Mos Def asked students around the country to walk out Oct. 1 to support the "Jena Six" escaped comment by this town's mayor. But when John Mellencamp sang, "Jena, take your nooses down," he took issue.
"The town of Jena has for months been mischaracterized in the media and portrayed as the epicenter of hatred, racism and a place where justice is denied," Jena Mayor Murphy R. McMillin wrote in a statement on town letterhead faxed on Friday to The Associated Press.
He said he had previously stayed quiet, hoping that the town's courtesy to people who have visited over the past year would speak for itself. "However, the Mellencamp video is so inflammatory, so defamatory, that a line has been crossed and enough is enough."
Mellencamp could not comment immediately because he was on a plane from California to Indiana and had not heard about McMillin's comments, publicist Bob Merlis said late Friday.
A brief note from Mellencamp posted Thursday on his Web site says he is telling a story, not reporting. "The song is not written as an indictment of the people of Jena but, rather, as a condemnation of racism," it says.
Nooses hung briefly from a big oak tree outside Jena High School a year ago, after a black freshman asked whether black students could sit under it. A white student was beaten unconscious three months later, in December.
Six black students, four of them 17 years old and legally adults, were arrested. Five were initially charged with attempted murder, although that charge has been reduced to aggravated second-degree battery as four of the older youths have been arraigned. The only youth tried so far was convicted, but that conviction was overturned on appeal and the case was sent to juvenile court.
Mellencamp's song opens, "An all-white jury hides the executioner's face; See how we are, me and you?" As he sings, images of Jena, the high school and the tree are followed by video from the 1960s, including civil rights marchers, police beatings, and President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King speaking. Still images include one of a protest sign reading, "God demands segregation," a stylized drawing of people in Ku Klux Klan robes and an older image of a black man in shackles, begging.
"I do not want to diminish the impression that the hanging of the nooses has had on good people," McMillin wrote. "I do recognize that what happened is insulting and hurtful."
But, he said, "To put the incident in Jena in the same league as those who were murdered in the 1960s cheapens their sacrifice and insults their memory."
At McMillin's request, the Jena Town Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to create an interracial committee to study racial relations and suggest solutions to any problems.