JENA, La. — An estimated 50,000 protesters riding hundreds of chartered buses from across the nation arrived in this little town at dawn Sept. 20 for a daylong demonstration demanding freedom for the “Jena Six.”

The six Black teenagers face years in prison for daring to sit under “the white tree” on the Jena High School lawn last year and then standing up in protest the next morning when nooses were found hanging from the tree, a menacing symbol of KKK lynch terror.

Their bold stand triggered a racist backlash in which the white students who hung the nooses received a slap on the wrist, while the Black youth were pilloried.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson told a huge crowd, all dressed in black T-shirts in front of the LaSalle Parish courthouse, “Just as Selma was about the right to vote and Little Rock was about the right to first-class schools, this is about fairness in the criminal justice system which is increasingly unfair.”

The crowd took up the chant, “Free Mychal Bell” and “No justice, no peace.” Bell is the first of the six African American youth tried on aggravated battery charges for allegedly striking a white youth who had hurled the “n” word at him following the noose-hanging incident.

Bell, 16 at the time, was tried and found guilty by an all-white jury. He has been in jail since last December and was expected to be sentenced Sept. 20.

Louisiana’s 3rd Court of Appeals overturned his conviction on grounds he was improperly tried as an adult. The court’s refusal to release him stirred rage in the crowd. Buckets were passed and $18,000 was collected to cover Bell’s bail. “We’ve got the bail — let him out of jail!” the crowd chanted.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, here along with thousands of other protesters from his city told the World, “The Court of Appeals overturned Bell’s conviction. Free the young man.” Nagin added, “This rally is incredible, awesome. I believe we met the target of 40,000 people. We are all gathered here in the spirit of unity and nonviolence. Everyone is focused on the need for balance in our justice system.”

The bus coaches, a majority filled by NAACP local chapters throughout the South, Midwest and Northeast, started pouring in about midnight and were parked for up to a mile on both sides of every road leading into Jena and in any available parking space. Thousands more protesters came by car and van.

Curtis Nelson and 149 other members of a Motorcycle Club in Moss Point, Miss., were joined by 72 bikers from Baton Rouge, La., who roared into town on their gleaming Harley-Davidsons. “Penitentiary for six teenagers for a fist fight? That’s cruel!” Nelson told the World. “When I was in high school you got suspended for getting in fights. And what about the white student who brought a loaded gun to school? They confiscated his gun and hushed it up. That’s not equal justice.”

Burnell Tolbert, president of the LaFourche Parish Branch of the NAACP, came in with a busload from Thibodaux, La. “We’re here because an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he told the World. “A higher court overturned the conviction of Mychal Bell. Why is he still in jail? Evidently, some people believe they are above the law. They say race is not an issue here. If race is not the issue, then what is?”

Tolbert said he is a carpenter working to rebuild houses in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Residents are still waiting for Bush to deliver on promised “Road Home” grants to rebuild, another glaring case of racist injustice.

Every store in this tidy little town, seat of LaSalle Parish, was closed. Only a tiny handful of white residents made an appearance. Yet the visiting throng, a majority Black, was peaceful, law-abiding and determined to help defuse racial tensions, not fuel them.

Charleston Hendrix, a retiree from Chicago typified this spirit. He spotted two young white women outside Mitch’s Restaurant where they work as waitresses. They were holding hand-lettered signs that read, “I am not a racist.”

Hendrix told them gently, “This is not against the people of Jena. We know there are many, many good people, white and Black, in Jena. This is against the Bush administration.”

In a brief interview, Hendrix told the World, “Bush came into office saying he was going to be a ‘uniter, not a divider.’ He has done just the opposite. He has done everything in his power to divide us, white from Black.”

Hendrix continued: “I don’t blame the people of Jena. I blame the Bush administration. They created the climate for incidents like the one that happened here. We’ve got to work against this injustice that is cropping up all across the land.”

Hendrix said he attends a vigil against the Iraq war every Sunday outside the Art Institute in Chicago. “This Iraq war is an unjust war. Bush and Cheney had this was planned before they got into office. How many American soldiers have died in Iraq? How many Iraqis have died?”

Linda Smith, a young white woman, told the World she is an electrician at the Northrop Grumman Ingalls shipyard in Mississippi. She marched with two African American friends. “I was outraged by how these young people are being treated,” she told the World. “They could be my own kids.”

Two other white women, Chastity Foster and Bridget Patrick, the latter holding her little girl Audie, drove down from nearby Monroe. “We came here to show our support for the Jena Six,” Foster told the World. “I’ve seen people get three days in jail for fighting. Mychal Bell has been in jail for 10 months. If the Jena Six are all convicted and sentenced they could get 9,125 days in jail. That’s ridiculous. These are young men who have their whole lives ahead of them.”

She pointed out that hanging nooses from trees and using the “n” word has frightening meaning for African Americans, bringing back fresh memories of KKK lynchings. “There’s a whole history behind that,” she said. “There should be a law against using that word.”

Larry Daniels, a steelworker, drove in from Columbia, S.C., along with five busloads of protesters. He was holding a sign, “United we stand, divided we fall.” He told the World, “I feel that if we all come together, we can make something happen for equal rights. If we are divided, we can’t win anything. We need a piece of the action. This whole country was built on slavery. We need to get something back. We’re here to demand our freedom.”

Later, we were invited to the home of Robert Bailey, one of the Jena Six. The defendants and their families have been instructed by their attorney not to grant media interviews. Yet Bailey and fellow defendant Theo Shaw, both handsome, young men, were there greeting a steady stream of well-wishers who arrived at the modest double-wide mobile home on a tree-lined street. An aunt asked me not to use her name, but she told the World, “It gives us such a good feeling that so many have come here to show support for our young men. I’m proud of my nephew. We are all standing behind them.”

After nooses were found hanging from the limb that morning, Bailey immediately organized a silent vigil, standing under the tree to protest this racist hate crime. It was a courageous act reminiscent of the Black youth who sat in at lunch counters throughout the South in the 1960s to protest segregation.

Instead of honoring his patriotism, authorities threw the book at Bailey and his fellow defendants. The outpouring in Jena, and sympathy protests by thousands more in towns and cities across the nation, Sept. 20, shows these neo-segregationists have reaped the whirlwind.