Justice comes late to the Jena Six, but at least it’s coming. Seventeen-year-old Mychal Bell was released from jail September 27, ten months after being locked up for attempted murder as a result of a six-on-one fight, one week after thousands of civil rights activists—led by Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton—marched through town in protest, and one day after District Attorney Reed “White Law” Walters abandoned his effort to try Bell as an adult. Bell is now heading to juvenile court with an all-star team of attorneys at his side; the other five defendants are also awaiting trial.
The case of the Jena Six—in which noose-hangers, white-on-black aggression and an all-white jury were excused while black students’ sneakers were considered lethal weapons—has clearly been a “teachable moment for America,” as Hillary Clinton put it during a call to Sharpton’s radio show on September 18. It has awakened a new generation to serious racial disparities in the justice system and to the heavy toll young black men are paying in an era of mass imprisonment. Unfortunately, this newfound campaign may be a long one. In the days following the march, Justice Department officials declined to prosecute the noose-hanging in Jena as a hate crime, and prominent scholars like Orlando Patterson and Richard Thompson Ford have issued contrarian attacks on the Jena Six and black Americans generally. Writing in Slate on September 24, Ford lamented the Jena Six as “the wrong poster children” for the new movement, as if only those who dress and act like Rosa Parks are entitled to equal treatment under the law. And in a New York Times op-ed on Sunday, Patterson eloquently flipped the script, blaming the “catastrophic state of black family life” for “the racial horror of our prisons.” If this sort of backlash continues to predominate, Jena’s “teachable moment” may expire, and the incarceration rate of African-Americans—now at nearly six times that of whites—will keep rising unabated.