Apart from the noose, this is an everyday story of modern America
One would think that Americans would be ashamed of this but they aren't. Even further, I find it quite embarrassing that a foreign observer can plainly see what Americans refuse to acknowledge. So much for the United States of White privilege. - The Angryindian
The four-hour drive from New Orleans to Jena takes you over long bridges, across still bayoux and deep into the remote backwoods of Louisiana. It's a journey that starts in the city that has become a byword for racial division and infrastructural neglect, following Hurricane Katrina. It then heads north-west through Opelousas where, as in so much of the south, people are literally segregated to death. There are two Catholic churches in the centre of town - Holy Ghost, for African Americans, and St Landry, for whites. In between is the cemetery where, by law and then by custom, blacks and whites have been buried according to their race - separate and finally equal, if only in the afterlife. And finally, it lands in the small town of Jena, surrounded by forests of pine where, it seems, even the flora can be racialised.
It was here that Kenneth Purvis asked the headmaster at Jena high school if he could sit under the "white tree" - the tree in the school courtyard where the white children used to hang out during break. The principal said he could sit where he liked. Purvis took him at his word. The next day he went with his cousin Bryant and stood under the tree. The day after that white students hung three nooses there.
If the symbolic threat of a schoolyard lynching makes this sound like a tale from a bygone era, then what happened next belongs very much to the present. It is a story of institutional indifference and judicial impunity that today condemns black American men: not to end their lives hanging from a tree, but to spend it rotting in jail. It illustrates to those who would like to draw a line under the civil rights era that they must first contend with its legacy before claiming to have conquered history. It serves as a salient example that legal barriers to integration may have been removed - itself no mean feat - but the ultimate goal of equality remains elusive. And it shows that just because you are allowed to do something - even something as basic as sitting under a tree - it doesn't mean that you are able to.
Back in Jena, the local, overwhelmingly white school board, considered the nooses a youthful prank and handed down brief suspensions. This made black parents and students angry and sparked months of racial tension. Police were called to the school several times because of fights between black and white students.