The tree at
“What did the tree do wrong?” asked Katrina Wallace, a stepsister of one of the Jena Six, when I interviewed her at the Burger Barn in
It all began at the start of the school year in 2006, at a school assembly, when Justin Purvis asked if he could sit under the schoolyard tree, a privilege unofficially reserved for white students. The next morning, three nooses were hanging from its broad, leafy branches.
African-American students protested, gathering under the tree. Soon after, the district attorney, Reed Walters, came to the school with the police, threatening, “I could end your lives with the stroke of a pen.” Racial tensions mounted in this 85 percent white town of 4,000. In December, a schoolyard fight erupted, and the district attorney charged six African-American high school students, the soon to be dubbed Jena Six, with second-degree attempted murder.
I recently visited Billy “Bulldog” Fowler in his office. He’s a white member of the LaSalle Parish School Board. He says
That night, I went to see the Baileys in their mobile home in Ward 10, one of the black neighborhoods in
Theo said he thought the students who hung the nooses “should have got expelled, cuz it wasn’t no prank. It was a threat.” School principal Scott Whitcomb thought the same. He recommended expulsion of those who hung the nooses, but the superintendent overruled him, imposing three days of suspension. Whitcomb resigned.
The African-American teens were dealt with differently. They were expelled, but appealed to the school board. The school district had conducted an investigation, but the school board was not allowed to review it. The school board’s lawyer was none other than the prosecuting district attorney, Reed Walters.
Board member Fowler recalls the January meeting: “Our legal authority that night was Mr. Walters.”
I asked, “And he told you, you couldn’t have access to the school proceedings, or the investigation?”
Fowler replied: “That’s right. [Walters said] it was a violation of something.” The board voted, without information. Fowler recalls: “It was unanimous. No, no it wasn’t. There was one board member who voted no, and that was Mr. Worthington.” Melvin Worthington, the only African-American on the school board, voted against upholding the expulsion of the black students.
Asked if he felt that Walters had a conflict of interest that night, Fowler replied, “Well, I’m assuming that Mr. Walters knows the law.”
National organizations like the NAACP have called for a major march in
Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!,” a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on 500 stations in