Trip Ignites A Spark of '60s Activism

A message of tolerance is left among the branches of a tree at the University of Maryland at College Park in support of the
A message of tolerance is left among the branches of a tree at the University of Maryland at College Park in support of the "Jena 6" and to protest a noose found on the tree this month. Students and staff members from the school's Nyumburu Cultural Center placed the hearts on the tree. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 27, 2007

The whole thing had a 1960s civil rights movement kind of vibe.

First, there was the fundraiser Sept. 17 at Stonefish Grill in Largo, where dozens of Prince George's County residents stopped by with cash donations and love for the men, women and children planning to head to Louisiana for last Thursday's rally on behalf of six black teenagers known as the Jena 6.

The next night in Clinton, there was the farewell gathering and a candlelight vigil, where relatives and friends came with baked ham, fried chicken, homemade rolls, bottled water and prayers for the demonstrators boarding two chartered buses.

Eighty-five residents and civic leaders from Prince George's, along with supporters from the District and Virginia, journeyed 15 hours to Jena, La., to join the march. Thousands from across the nation converged on the tiny Louisiana town to protest what they say has been the zealous and unfair prosecution of the six black youths accused of beating a white schoolmate.

"It's just like it was in the 1960s when people stood together," said Bob Ross, 63, of Clinton, who attended the March on Washington in 1963. "We feel a camaraderie on this bus because we are all working together to make something right. We are talking about the issues and what we are going to Jena to do. People are so used to airplanes and their own luxury hotel rooms, but in here we're all together. We're eating together, sleeping together and getting to know each other."

Local schoolchildren also showed their support for the Jena 6 last Thursday. At Charles H. Flowers High School in Mitchellville, hundreds dressed in black, and hundreds more wore black ribbons on their uniform shirts in a show of solidarity. Students in grades six through eight from the Mitchellville School in Bowie attended a rally at the U.S. Capitol, the younger students dressed in black. As parents dropped off their children, two of the elementary school students held up a banner that read "Support the Jena 6."

At the University of Maryland's Nyumburu Cultural Center, where a noose was found tied to a tree this month, students and staff gathered for a "Rally for Peace in Harmony" to support the Jena 6 and protest the noose hanging on its own campus.

The outrage that drew so many to Jena stemmed from the handling of an incident in September of last year. Three white teenagers hung nooses on a tree at a high school after black teenagers congregated at the spot, where white students usually gathered. Racial tensions escalated, resulting in the December brawl in which a white student was beaten.

The black teenagers were expelled from school and charged initially with attempted murder, a charge that the protesters said was too harsh. The white teens accused of hanging the nooses were given in-school suspensions and never prosecuted for what protesters called a hate crime.

Charges against the black teenagers have been reduced to second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit battery, but one of the defendants was found guilty by an all-white jury and faces possible prison time.

"I felt that the fact that the prosecutor could get away with this kind of injustice in 2007 was unacceptable, and if people had come out in larger numbers, they wouldn't be sitting in jail," Sandra L. Pruitt of Mitchellville said of the students. "I wanted to be part of the effort to show that African Americans are demanding fair and equal treatment across the board." Pruitt, who rode one of the buses to Jena last week, has three teenage sons.

On the buses, residents ages 6 to 80 eagerly anticipated their arrival in Jena. College students videotaped the event, and some riders listened to R&B music and a hip-hop version of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Others got to know each other over cards and board games.

Ross credited local leaders and residents for supporting the trip, including $1,000 from Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George's), $750 from Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.) and $3,000 from County Council member Marilynn Bland (D-Clinton). Donations covered the $8,000 cost of hiring the first bus and part of the second one's cost, Ross said. Participants paid the remaining balance.

By 6 p.m. Thursday on the return trip, the Prince George's buses had reached Jackson, Miss., where participants rested for about eight hours to avoid staying overnight and spending money in Louisiana.

Ross said the news about the case spread through Prince George's by word of mouth and e-mails. Churches urged members to send checks to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to pay for the youths' legal expenses. June White Dillard, who heads the Prince George's chapter of the NAACP, visited schools to talk about the case.

Leaders said a focus of the Jena effort was to educate children about racism and its effects. "You have to raise the consciousness, that what affects one affects all of our youth," said Ross, a father of seven sons ages 18 to 36. "That could be our child."

As the buses rolled through Alabama, the mood turned somber as some marchers shared their own stories of racism and prejudice.

The Rev. Sinclair Grey III, 37, a youth counselor from Greenbelt, spoke of an encounter he had in 1991 as a student at the University of Maryland at College Park.

"I was leaving campus about midnight, and I was confronted by about 50 whites and threatened in front of the old McDonald's on Route 1," he said. "It was very disturbing."

James Goodwin, 42, a District resident and a teacher at Crossland High School in Temple Hills, and his fiancee, Gina Carethers, 40, discussed the South's history of racism and how many African American youths had been victimized by it.

"These are children we're talking about," he said. "That's something that some people are not focusing on."

Goodwin added, "As parents ourselves, we know that if one of our children were in trouble, we hope people would help. We want to help these families and these children."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company