Tina Cheatham missed the civil rights marches at Selma, Montgomery and Little Rock, but she had no intention of missing another brush with history.

That's why the 24-year-old Georgia Southern University graduate drove all night to make it to the tiny, central Louisiana town of Jena before Thursday.

"It was a good chance to be part of something historic since I wasn't around for the civil rights movement. This is kind of the 21st century version of it," she said.

Cheatham was among thousands expected to turn out in support of six black teenagers, known as the Jena Six, jailed for the beating of a white classmate. The event was heavily promoted on black Web sites, blogs, radio and publications.

Months after declining to charge three white high school students who were briefly suspended for hanging nooses in a tree, local prosecutors charged five of the six black students with attempted second-degree murder in the beating of a white student. The sixth defendant's case is sealed because he is charged as a juvenile.

Critics allege the cases show authorities in this predominantly white town are disproportionately harsh toward blacks.

"This is not about race," the Rev. Al Sharpton said Wednesday. "This is not about politics. It's not about black and white. It's about equal justice for all."

District Attorney Reed Walters, breaking a long public silence Wednesday at a news conference, denied racism was involved.

"This case has been portrayed by the news media as being about race," Walters said. "And the fact that it takes place in a small southern town lends itself to that portrayal. But it is not and never has been about race. It is about finding justice for an innocent victim and holding people accountable for their actions."

Walters said the suffering of the beating victim, Justin Barker, has been largely ignored. Barker was knocked unconscious, his face badly swollen and bloodied, though he was able to attend a school function that night.

"With all the emphasis on the defendant, the injury done to him and the serious threat to his existence has become a footnote," Walters said of Barker, who accompanied the prosecutor but declined to speak.

Walters also said the reason he did not prosecute the students accused of hanging the nooses is because he could find no Louisiana law they could be charged with.

"I cannot overemphasize what a villainous act that was. The people that did it should be ashamed of what they unleashed on this town," Walters said.

He also noted that four defendants in the beating case were of adult age under Louisiana law, and that the only juvenile charged as an adult, Mychal Bell, had a prior criminal record.

Bell, 16 at the time of the attack, is the only one of the Jena Six to be tried so far. He was convicted on an aggravated second-degree battery count that could have sent him to prison for 15 years, but the conviction was overturned last week when a state appeals court said he should not have been tried as an adult.

Thursday's protest had been planned to coincide with Bell's sentencing, but organizers decided to press ahead after the conviction was thrown out. Bell remains in jail while prosecutors prepare an appeal.

Students from schools across the country — including historically black colleges like Morehouse College, Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University, Howard University, Hampton University and Southern University — were en route to Jena on Wednesday.

In Jena, with only 3,500 residents, whites fretted about safety as a massive rally descends upon their town. Hotels were booked from as far away as Natchez, Miss. to Alexandria, La.

Local officials said they would provide portable toilets, water and medical facilities to ensure the safety and comfort of those attending the rally. Sharpton, who helped organize the protest, met Bell at the courthouse Wednesday morning. He said Bell is heartened by the show of support and wants to make sure it stays peaceful.

"He doesn't want anything done that would disparage his name — no violence, not even a negative word," Sharpton said.