It has been over 40 years since the Civil Rights demonstrations that galvanized a nation, but for 16-year-old Domonique Benton of Hope Charter on 2116 East Haines Street, today’s Jena Six rally was a moment that harkened back to that era.
“I feel like we’re doing something real positive,” Benton said. The high school student and her classmates were dismissed early from school Thursday to attend the “Free Jena Six” rally at Temple’s Bell Tower at noon.
Benton and classmate Sedrick Chisom, 17, joined about 500 protesters, many of whom donned in black.
They met at the Bell Tower in a second day of rallying organized by the Black Student Union. The group was also joined by the city and university chapters of the NAACP.
“We made a tactical decision not to go to Louisiana,” said Jerry Mondesire, president of the NAACP Philadelphia.
Instead of taking the two day bus ride to the small town of Jena, whose population is about 35,000, Mondesire joined students at Temple to spread awareness about the Jena Six case.
Traffic came to a halt yesterday on Broad and Spring Garden streets as more than 200 Temple students made their way to City Hall rallying in support of the “Jena Six.”
“First Katrina, now Jena,” yelled the group of students as they convened at the Bell Tower before marching to City Hall. More than 200 onlookers snapped photos, sat on the steps of Paley Library and read flyers the protesters passed out.
“What’s happening in Jena could happen in Philadelphia,” said Weldon McWilliams, an African-American studies doctoral candidate, addressing the crowd at the Bell Tower.
Racial tension in the small town of Jena, La., culminated during a school yard fight involving Mychal Bell, Bryant Purvis, Jesse Beard, Carwin Jones, Theodore Shaw and Robert Baily, Jr., dubbed the Jena Six.
After several racially charged incidents with Justin Baker and other white students, the group of young men got in a school yard fight. Baker suffered injuries from the December fight. He was released from the hospital after a few hours and attended a school function that evening.
Bell, 17, and the five students were initially charged with attempted murder. Bell was convicted of aggravated second-degree battery by an all white jury.
The case stems from earlier racially charged incidents after a black student, Kenneth Pervis, and friends decided to sit under what students at Jena High School called the “white tree.”
The following day, three nooses were hung from the tree. After the principal’s call for a suspension was overruled by Superintendent Roy Breithaupt, who called the noose hanging a “juvenile prank,” he ordered that the students instead be suspended, said Alan Bean, executive director of Friends of Justice.
Friends of Justice, a criminal justice reform organization, investigated the incidents leading up to the Jena Six case after being contacted by the parents of the six students.
“If public officials had responded correctly it could’ve prevented subsequent issues,” Bean said.
Led by two police cruisers and an undercover cop car, the racially mixed group of protesters marched towards City Hall with their book bags, neon signs and flyers in tow.
“Free Jena Six,” one girl shouted pumping her right fist while clenching her biology goggles wearing two and a half inch stiletto shoes.
“We can’t let people not be accountable,” senior biology major Stefanie Fischbach said. “That’s why I’m here because we can’t let this racism go on.”
“I agree with the cause,” said Stacy Dowling, owner of Dowling’s Palace on 1310 N. Broad St.
“We need to stand up for something finally,” he said holding a “Free Jean 6 T-shirt” as students walked by.
Their cries became louder as the group neared City Hall.
Pedestrians began pumping their fists as they read flyers distributed by the students.
“Nooses are not pranks,” they shouted.
“Honk for Justice” some signs read as the students continued a steady stream of chants amid the 80-degree heat while the sun beat down on their fuchsia and white signs.
“We want to let the community of Philadelphia be aware, we want to let everybody on Temple’s campus be aware,” junior psychology major Nexus Cook said. “We are the future of our generation, so if we can’t even make a change, who will make a change?”
The group also collected money to contribute the Jena Six legal defense fund. The BSU began raising money Monday and collected more than $125 after an hour in front of the Howard Gittis Student Center, said Joshua Harris, double major in African-American studies in secondary education and treasurer of the BSU activism committee.
The protesters reached City Hall by 1:30 p.m. where they beat drums and McWilliams once again addressed the crowd.
“I’m proud of the people that stepped up,” Cook said. She said between Wednesday’s rally and Monday’s fundraising effort, the BSU raised more than $500 for the Jena Six legal defense fund.
She said the BSU plans to work with the Temple chapter of the NAACP to continue support efforts for the Jena Six case.
“We want to speak to high schools too,” she said.
Thousands are arrived in Jena today on the steps of La Salle Parish courthouse to protest the case.
Renita Burns can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Staff writer Morgan Zalot contributed to this report.