JENA, La. – Drawn by a case tinged with one of the most hated symbols of Old South racism — a hangman's noose tied in an oak tree — thousands of protesters rallied Thursday against what they see as a double standard of prosecution for blacks and whites.
The plight of the so-called Jena Six became a flashpoint for one the biggest civil-rights demonstrations in years. Five of the black teens were initially charged with attempted murder in the beating of a white classmate.
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.
"It's not just about Jena, but about inequalities and disparities around the country," said Stephanie Brown, 26, national youth director for the NAACP, who estimated about 2,000 college students were among the throngs of mostly black protesters who overwhelmed this tiny central Louisiana town.
But the teens' case galvanized demonstrators as few legal cases have in recent years.
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. But nooses appeared in the tree the next day. Three white students were suspended but not criminally prosecuted. LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters said this week he could find no state law covering the act.
Brown said the Jena case resonates with the college-aged crowd because they aren't much older than the six youths charged. Many of the student protesters had been sharing information about the case through Facebook, MySpace and other social-networking Web sites.
Jackson, who led a throng of people three blocks long to the courthouse with an American flag resting on his shoulder, likened the demonstration to the marches on Selma and the Montgomery bus boycott. But even he was not entirely sure why Jena became the focal point.
"You can never quite tell," he said. "Rosa Parks was not the first to sit in the front of the bus. But the sparks hit a dry field."
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 same 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."
People began massing for the demonstrations before dawn Thursday, jamming the two-lane highway leading into town and parking wherever they could. State police estimated the crowd at 15,000 to 20,000. Organizers said they believe it drew as many as 50,000.
Demonstrators gathered at the local courthouse, a park, and the yard at Jena High where the tree once stood (it was cut down in July). At times the town resembled a giant festival, with people setting up tables of food and drink and some dancing while a man beat on a drum.
Sharpton admonished the crowd to remain peaceful, and there were no reports of trouble. State police could be seen chatting amicably with demonstrators at the courthouse.
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."
While Jena Six supporters were overwhelmingly black, young whites were also present.
"I think what happened here was disgusting and repulsive to the whole state," said Mallory Flippo, a white college student from Shreveport. "I think it reflected badly on our state and how it makes it seem we view black people. I don't feel that way, so I thought I should be here."
Other rallies in support of the black teens were held elsewhere, including Oklahoma City, where about 500 people gathered.
"It is time for us to express our outrage that such a blatant injustice should happen," said Roosevelt Milton, Oklahoma City NAACP president.
"I'm just glad people are starting to stand up for what is right," said Kiara Andrews, 15, of the Oklahoma City suburb of Midwest City.
In Jena, many white residents expressed anger at the way news organizations portrayed their town of 3,000 people.
"I believe in people standing up for what's right," said resident Ricky Coleman, 46, who is white. "What bothers me is this town being labeled racist. I'm not racist."
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 out 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.
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.
A group of about a dozen white residents and black demonstrators engaged in an animated but not angry exchange during the march. Whites asked blacks if they were aware of Bell's criminal record. Blacks replied that Jena High administrators mishandled the incidents.
Another white resident, Bill Williamson, 59, said he tried to convince visitors that the town was being treated unfairly and that Bell belonged in jail.
"I think we changed one man's mind," he said. "But most of these people don't want to hear."
As she trudged up a hill to a rally at a park, 63-year-old Elizabeth Redding of Willingboro, N.J., remembered marching at Selma, Ala., when she was in her 20s.
"I am a great-grandmother now. I'm doing this for my great-grandchildren," she said.
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."