By Howard Witt

Tribune senior correspondent

9:11 PM CDT, September 20, 2007


Drawn by the disturbing symbol of three lynching nooses dangling from a tree and greeted by Confederate flags displayed along their route, tens of thousands of African Americans poured into this racially tense Deep South town Thursday to stage the largest civil rights demonstration in years against what they regard as glaring racial injustices here.

Protesters from across the nation cheerfully defied obstacles placed in their way by town officials, such as a line of portable toilets put directly in front of the courthouse steps where the demonstration was held. They celebrated what Rev. Al Sharpton described as the birth of a “new civil rights movement for the 21st Century,” driven by black Internet blogs, e-mail and talk radio more than any traditional civil rights leader.

Many of the participants traveled 20 hours or more by bus from both coasts and even Alaska to arrive at dawn for the peaceful, six-hour rally, which featured Sharpton, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King III, radio personality Michael Baisden and dozens of other black leaders and celebrities.

“The civil rights movement is finally catching up with Jena,” declared Ella Bell King, 59, a resident of Alexandria, La., who slept overnight with other family members in front of the courthouse. “Something like this should have happened here 40 years ago.”

The protesters came to decry the prosecution of the Jena 6-six black high school students who were initially charged with attempted murder for beating a white student last December, even though the student was treated and released at a local hospital. The charges were later reduced to the lesser felony of aggravated second-degree battery.

The demonstrators came as well to criticize the decision of the local district attorney, Reed Walters, not to press similarly serious criminal charges against white youths who attacked blacks.

And they came to defy the symbolism of Jena’s “white tree”-a shade tree at the high school, traditionally reserved for whites, where, as the Tribune first reported last May, all of Jena’s troubles began. Read it all here.

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