JENA, LA. — In a scene reminiscent of civil rights protests of decades past, thousands of protesters descended on this small Southern town Thursday to peacefully decry what they said was the unfair treatment of six black teenagers charged with beating a white schoolmate.
The case of the Jena Six, as the defendants have come to be known, attracted a cast of famous black leaders, but many said the crowd was called by fresh chorus of voices -- among them bloggers, black radio personalities and Web-networked college students.
Organizers said the crowd swelled to 50,000; state police said it was too spread out to count. As the visitors began pouring into this mostly white central Louisiana community of 3,000 at daybreak, they encountered a ghost town: The courthouse, the high school and almost all the businesses -- from the barber to the bail bondsman -- were closed.
It was not long, though, before the protesters, many of them African American and many wearing black T-shirts, filled the two-lane highway through downtown and residential streets, chanting and holding placards that read "Free the Jena Six" and "Enough Is Enough."
On the steps of the LaSalle Parish Courthouse, speakers described the case as an example of an American justice system that continued to treat African Americans unfairly, despite the progress made since the days of Jim Crow.
"In the 20th century, we had to fight for where we sit on the bus," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who arrived at the courthouse with members of the defendants' families. "Now we have to fight on how we sit in the courtroom."
Added the Rev. Jesse Jackson: "There is a Jena in every town, a Jena in every state."
That kind of talk was met with disdain by residents of Jena (pronounced JEE-nuh), many of whom stayed indoors for the day. Some who ventured outside said their town had been unfairly singled out, by both protesters and media, as a backwoods redoubt of racial animosity.
"They have cast us a bunch of ignorant, racist bumpkins," said Ray Hodges, an automotive technology teacher at Jena High School. "It's about as far from the truth as you can get. There is racism in Jena, but it's not only in Jena, it's not only in Louisiana, it's not only in the South. It's an American thing."
"I actually heard a girl shout 'Shame on Jena,' " said Pam Sharp, 43, who sat in a plastic chair as the procession filed past her house. "I shouted back, 'No, shame on you!' " How can they include the whole town? That's the shame."
For Sharp, the victim in the case was Justin Barker, the 17-year-old white student who was kicked in the head and knocked unconscious.
"Protesters don't want to talk about him," she said.
At a White House news conference Thursday morning, President Bush said the events in Jena had "saddened" him.
"I understand the emotions," Bush said. "The Justice Department and the FBI are monitoring the situation down there, and all of us in America want there to be fairness when it comes to justice."
Sharpton told the Associated Press that he and other black leaders were trying to persuade the House Judiciary Committee to call Jena's district attorney, Reed Walters, to Capitol Hill to explain his actions.
Walters, in a news conference Wednesday, said the case was not about race but about "finding justice for an innocent victim, and holding people accountable for their actions."
To some black observers, however, the Jena story -- studded with explosive symbols from an age of more widespread and blatant racism -- was too volatile to be ignored.
The trouble started last September when three white students hung nooses from a tree where whites traditionally congregated at the local high school. The students responsible were suspended. Later, part of the school mysteriously burned down.
Racial tensions reportedly flared on campus, and in December, the six black students allegedly beat up Barker. He was taken to the hospital and treated for injuries to his ears, face and eye; later that night, he attended a ring ceremony at school.
The black students were arrested and kicked out of school, and five of them were charged with attempted second-degree murder. (The sixth was charged as a juvenile and was recently allowed to return to classes.) The charges were later reduced. One of the defendants, Mychal Bell, was tried and found guilty of aggravated battery. His conviction was thrown out this month, though, because he was tried as an adult rather than a juvenile. He remains in custody while prosecutors decided whether to file new charges against him.
The other defendants are awaiting trial dates and face up to 22 years in prison.
To Jasmyne Cannick -- a blogger and black activist from Los Angeles -- such details convinced her that something was clearly amiss in Jena. In recent days, she said, she has devoted much of her blogging to the case, and encouraged supporters to go to Thursday's protest or wear black in their hometowns.