On the Road to Jena - and Activism

In Louisiana and on their own campuses, black students are galvanized, and some colleges add education for those preparing to protest.
September 21, 2007

For many students at historically black colleges, this week featured some additions to the syllabus. At Prairie View A&M University, students were turning in an extra essay. At Philander Smith College, students attended a lawyer's lecture on the "Jena 6" case as well as lectures on non-violence.

The extra assignments were designed by colleges to turn Thursday's protests over the arrests of six black students in Jena, La. -- which some say galvanized black students more than any other recent event -- into more than a rally. "This was not just a field trip," said Walter M. Kimbrough, president of Philander Smith, who said that the 120 students who traveled to the rallies would be required to give reports on what they saw. While other students sent larger delegations in total numbers, Kimbrough noted that more than 20 percent of his student body made the trip -- six hours each way, leaving the Little Rock campus after a candlelight vigil with other students Wednesday night, and returning late Thursday night.

"In the history of HBCU's, there is an activist history, but it died down. But the generation of students today, I think they are going to be activists," Kimbrough said.

Robert M. Franklin, president of Morehouse College, spoke at a rally of more than 1,500 students Thursday at the Atlanta University Center that houses Morehouse and several other historically black colleges -- while two bus loads of Morehouse students made the trip to Louisiana. Franklin, who writes extensively about activism and social trends in black America, said he has not seen student activism at this level in years. "I think there's an effort to revive some of the best things about the civil rights movement," said Franklin, who noted that he spoke to students in Atlanta "in the shadow of the statue" of the Morehouse alumnus Martin Luther King Jr.

Reports from a range of institutions -- and especially historically black colleges -- found students engaged in the Jena 6 case and rallying on Thursday, many of them dressed in black. More than 150 students traveled from Albany State University, in Georgia. Fifty students took a 20-hour bus rise from Howard University. More than 120 students at Prairie View A&M wrote the essay that was their ticket to a bus ride to the Jena protests. Hundreds of students held rallies at Coppin State and Morgan State Universities, in Baltimore. Hundreds gathered at Hampton University for a moment of silence and speeches. Among colleges that are not historically black, rallies were held at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, the University of Texas at Austin, and Temple University, where about 700 students -- most of them dressed in black -- raised their fists for six minutes of silence.

The protests are a response to the arrests of six black teenagers, who were originally charged with attempted murder, for attacking a white boy amid a series of racially charged incidents at a high school in Jena. While the black youths were charged with serious crimes, civil rights leaders have said that white students received little or no punishment for inflammatory, racist acts, such as hanging a noose on a tree after a black student inquired about sitting under it, despite the tree being seen as a gathering place for white students.

The idea of black high school students being charged, while white students involved in incidents weren't, resonated with black students, as word of the incidents spread and the rallies were organized. Kimbrough said that the noose incident reminded students of the racism that remains in society -- and the reality that despite the advances since the civil rights movement, bigoted incidents still happen. He noted that just this month, officials at the University of Maryland at College Park are investigating who placed a noose outside a building housing black student organizations.

He also said that there is a frustration about going to college, feeling adult, and being confronted with racism. "The first time I was ever called a nigger was at the University of Georgia as a freshman in 1985," he said. "We thought this would be over by now, but it's not."

Kenyatta Shamburger, director of multicultural programs and services at Clemson University, which sent some students to Jena on an NAACP bus, said black students there were shaken up in February, when photos surfaced of a gang-themed party, full of racial stereotypes. Students also rallied as a result -- and the university organized a series of events, including public apologies from some of the students who held the offensive party. "There is evidence of a spirit of activism," he said. "I think students are starting to take that next step, and to act."

Franklin, the Morehouse president, said he thinks the black students rallying Thursday have a range of concerns, including the war in Iraq, and a sense that important problems for black Americans are ignored. In his talk Thursday, he said he wanted to applaud students. "The power of a well disciplined, organized protest cannot be understated," he said.

But Franklin also said he wanted to educate. His speech invoked King and Gandhi on non-violence. And he also said it was important to point out that the black teens in Jena -- while their treatment was unfair -- hadn't followed King's teachings. "It requires intellectual and moral honesty on our part to say that the actual behavior involved three wrongs: the gesture of the noose as an expression of white prejudice, the retaliatory and violent behavior was wrong and we need to be honest about that, and third was the response of the criminal justice system," Franklin said.

At Philander Smith, Kimbrough said he wanted students to relate their experience at the rally with lessons about social justice and black history. A series of speakers at the college, such as Andrew Young, who was there this week, are meeting with students to discuss the civil rights era. Students are participating in the preparations for the 50th anniversary of the Little Rock 9 desegregation case. Kimbrough teaches a course in which Jonathan Kozol's The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, is a primary text. Students are assigned to do research at area high schools that are more and less wealthy to document how the issues play out in their local community.

While Kimbrough wanted to send students to Jena, he also wanted to be sure they had plenty of guidance. About 10 senior officials went with the students, including the vice president of student affairs, two chaplains and the president's wife, who also is a lawyer for the University of Arkansas.

Adria Kimbrough provided students with legal background on the case. In a phone interview after the rally, she said she wanted to be with the students. For most of the academics as well as the students, this was a rally of the sort they had never experienced before. "For these students, it was the first time their generation had a chance to speak like this," she said.

The buses left Little Rock around 10:30 Wednesday night and Adria Kimbrough described a night of singing, political discussions "and some sleep" before arriving in Louisiana early Thursday.

Carissa Rodgers, a sophomore English major who made the trip from Philander Smith, was quick to note that the rally was "not equivalent" to those that took place in the civil rights era. But she said "this was the first time I've ever done something like this, something that could leave a mark."

Justin Powell, a senior who has just been admitted to a chiropractor graduate program, said he had been following the case online, and "when I heard we had the opportunity to do this, I had to jump on the ball, to help out."

Others only recently learned about the case. Dominique Rutledge, a freshman from Chicago who expects to major in biology, said he hadn't heard of the Jena 6 until orientation week at Philander Smith. "President Kimbrough asked us if we knew who they were," Rutledge said. He said that the prospect of attending a rally with so many made him nervous, but he wanted to be there for Michael Bell, the Jena teen who remains in jail, even though his conviction was rejected by an appeals court.

"I didn't come to college thinking I'd be in a protest like this, and I was pretty nervous," said Rutledge. "But once I heard the story of Michael Bell, I wanted to let him know of my concern, to tell him to keep his head high and not to give up."


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