Jena, Louisiana

As the rally began to unfold this morning, it became clear that it would attract huge numbers of people, perhaps even the 40,000 that some organizers had predicted. They came to protest the case of the “Jena 6,” black youths who were charged with serious crimes for an attack on a white youth not long after white teens who had targeted blacks were let off with a slap on the wrist. White supremacists reacted with a strange mixture of anger and admiration for the organizing behind the rally.

But the dominant response was violent rage. “I think a group of White men with AK rifles loaded with high capacity magazines should close in on the troop of howler monkeys from all sides and compress them into a tight group, and then White men in the buildings on both sides of the shitskinned hominids shall throw Molotov cocktails from above to cleanse the nigs by fire,” wrote “NS Cat” on VNN. Another poster fantasized about a terrorist attack in Jena today: “Wouldn’t that be sweet? Gosh darn, wouldn’t that be sweet? Good LORD wouldn’t THAT be SWeeeeEET? Boom, Boom, no more Coon! Well? A White man can dream can’t he?”

Mark Potok on September 20, 2007, from Hatewatch

I was born one year after Central High School, in Little Rock, Arkansas, was integrated with the help of the National Guard. “On the morning of September 23, 1957,” according to the National Historic Place website, “nine African-American teenagers stood up to an angry crowd protesting integration in front of Little Rock’s Central High as they entered the school for the first time.”

I was reminded of this over the last week as I was watching the march on Jena, Louisiana, and reading about the debates it has engendered, and then thinking about the anniversary of the Central High integration. What’s so striking is that it is so easy to believe that Jim Crow belongs in the very distant past, instead of my childhood.

We all want Jim Crow to be a part of the past, of course, and I think people get resentful when they are reminded that in too many ways the legacy of segregation is still with us. There’s nothing trivial about the use of the confederate flag, or making a “joke” by hanging a few nooses in a tree that was unofficially reserved for whites. Calling it a joke is just a kind of wish fulfillment fantasy.

And then I go to Hatewatch and hear about the most virulent forms of white supremacy. I was born in the South, though, and I know that these attitudes– the racists’ macho bravado– is still very common and very dangerous. I’m sure that you could have heard versions of it all over the country after the march last week. I heard a polite echo of that in Reed Walter’s famous threat to the students of Jena High school: “See this pen in my hand? I can end your lives with the stroke of a pen.”

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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