The Wrong Poster Children: Why the Jena 6 protests have gone awry.
The following are excerpts of Professor Richard Thompson Ford's guest column at Slate.com:
When more than 10,000 people converged on the small town of Jena, La., last Friday, the Rev. Al Sharpton called their march the beginning of the 21st-century civil rights movement. He may be right. And that's just what's worrisome. The marchers gathered to protest criminal charges brought against six African-American high-school students, the "Jena 6." But the racial problems facing this town—and many others—are more complex than simple prejudice, and finding solutions will necessarily require more nuance than a mass protest can offer. The mismatch between the complex and layered racial tensions in Jena and the one-issue rallying cry of "Free the Jena 6" suggest that the tactics of last century's civil rights movement may be an anachronism for today's racial conflicts.
The 21st century's civil rights movement will need more sympathetic poster children than the Jena 6. These young men weren't exactly engaged in peaceful civil disobedience when they ran afoul of the law. The injustice here is not that they are being prosecuted for their crime—it is that the many other wrongs that preceded the assault have been inadequately addressed. When you think about it, the logic that underlies the demand to free the Jena 6 comes down to this: These six young men were justified in kicking their lone victim senseless because other people who shared his race committed offenses against other black students. This sort of racial vendetta is diametrically opposed to the message of social justice and cross-racial understanding that underlies the civil rights movement of the last century.
And yet, all along, Jena has had a better symbol for civil rights on offer. The anonymous black students who defied the informal segregation at the high school and sat under the perversely misnamed "white tree" are the movement's true legatees. They have received so little attention that I don't even know their names or how many such brave and defiant young people there were.
Richard Thompson Ford is George E. Osborne Professor of Law at Stanford Law School. His latest book is Racial Culture: A Critique; he is currently at work on a new book titled The Race Card.