JENA, La. — This small Louisiana town doesn’t look much different than it did five years ago: The same small businesses open their doors six days a week, except for Sundays, when most people head to Jena’s many churches. The upcoming high school football season is the main topic of conversation.
Things have mostly gotten back to normal in this community of about 3,000 people, which became the site of a massive civil rights protest that attracted thousands in September 2007, nine months after six black students who became known as the “Jena Six” were charged with attempted murder after a white classmate was severely beaten.
It was on Aug. 30, 2006, that a black student asked if he could sit under a tree on campus or if it was for white students only. The next morning there were three nooses hanging in the tree. The tension culminated on Dec. 4, when Justin Barker was beaten. Six of his black classmates were arrested. Three days later, five of them were charged with attempted murder.
The town has moved on from the perception of racial tension that once defined it. So, too, have the Jena Six.
Reed Walters, the LaSalle Parish District Attorney since 1991, said he believes the incident drew the town closer together, including the march. Thousands of chanting demonstrators filled the streets that September day, led by figures such as the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. At the time, the town was left to fend off accusations of racism in the justice system – no one was charged for hanging the nooses, and protesters derided the attempted murder charges as excessive. The charges were later reduced.
“The world had been told that Jena was such an evil place,” Walters said. “I think during that march people saw that was not true.”
Members of the Jena Six are determined to move away – and learn – from their controversial pasts. They say they want to be something one day: A sports agent, a lawyer, a military man. Those interviewed said they don’t run into problems when they return to Jena to visit family.
“I’ve tried to wash those memories out of the back of my head,” said Jessie Ray Beard, who was 14 when he was arrested in the beating. “I have other things to concentrate on.”
Beard’s attorney’s arranged for him to stay with another attorney’s family in New York about three and a half years ago and attend the Canterbury School, a private boarding school in Connecticut.
“That first year was very, very hard for him,” said Alan Howard, the attorney with whom Beard lives.
“It took a tremendous effort on his part to make it.”
Beard has since gone on to Hofstra, where he earned an academic scholarship, is pursuing legal studies and business, and plays on the lacrosse team. He plans to go to grad school on the west coast and eventually work as a sports agent.
Robert Bailey Jr., who graduated from high school in Georgia, plays wide receiver at Grambling and is a member of the ROTC. After he graduates in 2013, he hopes to pursue a military career.
“Because of what happened, I grew up. I learned things too, like doing things the right way,” Bailey said.
Mychal Bell, who was 16 at the time, was the only defendant to go to trial. He was convicted, but that decision was set aside. He ultimately pleaded guilty to a second-degree battery charge and received an 18-month sentence. The other five accepted a plea deal that gave them seven days probation, a $500 fine and court costs.
Bell, a highly recruited football player before the beating, is a cornerback on Southern University’s team. His attorney said it was best if he wasn’t interviewed.
“Every time there’s something in the press about him, he gets a lot of hate mail,” said Bell’s attorney, Louis Scott.
Theo Shaw, 21, is now studying political science and history at Louisiana University-Monroe and plans to go to law school. He has done several internships in the field, he said, including one with the Innocence Project, a national nonprofit that works to free wrongfully convicted prisoners. His time in jail sparked his interest in law – he said he spent a lot of time reading up on the subject so he could file court papers.
“I do think it was a situation that helped me to develop character and be a better person,” Shaw said. “But beyond that, I don’t think of it much anymore.”
Bryant Purvis is enrolled in Southeastern Louisiana. Carwin Jones did not return calls left with his father for comment.
The victim, Justin Barker, is the only one who still lives in Jena. Now 22, he’s an inconspicuous young man: thin, with soft brown hair and large eyes, a Southerner raised to say “Yes, ma’am” and “Yes, sir” and stay quiet around strangers. So he’s always surprised when someone asks if he’s “that” Justin Barker, he told The Associated Press in his first media interview since the beating five years ago.
“That’s the only time that whole thing comes up,” Barker said, sitting in the dining area of his tidy new trailer. These days he works on an oil rig in Texas – seven days on, seven off – and helps his father cut timber when he’s home. He recently divorced the woman who was his girlfriend when he was beaten.
The defendants initially claimed Barker had made a racial slur, prompting the attack. But they admitted that was untrue as part of the plea deal. As for Barker, all he remembers is this: He walked out of the gym and turned left to avoid a crowd when something hit him.
“I don’t know why they attacked me,” he said. “No one ever told me, and I don’t have a clue until this day.”
He woke up in the emergency room, his right eye swollen shut and his jaw fractured. Both took months to heal, and he still deals with TMJ – a popping in the joint where the jaw connects to the skull. He sued the defendants and was awarded $22,000 for medical bills and $7,000 in damages. Now he says he’s put it all behind him.
“I’m just trying to get on with my life,” Barker said. “I have put all that behind me.”
Barker is one of the few young people that stay in town, as most leave to find jobs, said Mayor Murphy McMillin. These days, town officials are focused on ensuring there is a high quality of life in Jena. For the mayor, the term “Jena Six” has taken on new meaning.
“There is a new Jena Six – the mayor and the five city councilmen,” McMillin said.
The town’s seven black churches make a point of getting together and interacting with folks who attend white churches, “and we have it on a regular basis,” said the Rev. Jimmy Young, 70, pastor of L&A Baptist Church. Young is black.
Walters, the district attorney, won’t talk about the case. But he does have one regret.
“I wish I had been able to explain things better,” he said. “I don’t think I did a very good job of that.”