houston -- No sooner did thousands of African American demonstrators depart the racially tense town of Jena, La., last week after protesting perceived injustices than white supremacists started calling for violence.
First a neo-Nazi website posted the names, addresses and phone numbers of some of the six black teenagers and their families at the center of the Jena Six case, as it has come to be known, and urged followers to find them and “drag them out of the house,” prompting an investigation by the FBI.
Then the leader of a white supremacist group in Mississippi published interviews that he conducted with the mayor of Jena and the white teenager who was attacked and beaten, allegedly by the six black youths. In those interviews, the mayor, Murphy McMillin, praised efforts by pro-white groups to organize counterdemonstrations; the teenager, Justin Barker, urged white readers to “realize what is going on, speak up and speak their mind.” ’
Over the weekend, white extremist websites and blogs filled with invective about the Jena Six case, which has drawn scrutiny from civil rights leaders, three leading Democratic presidential candidates and hundreds of African American bloggers. They are concerned about allegations that blacks have been treated more harshly than whites in the criminal justice system of the town of 3,000, which is 85% white.
LaSalle Parish Sheriff Carl Smith said that deputies had increased patrols in the area amid concerns over the safety of the defendants’ families.
David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader, last week announced his support for Jena’s white residents, who voted overwhelmingly for him when he ran unsuccessfully for Louisiana governor in 1991.
“There is a major white supremacist backlash building,” said Mark Potok, a hate-group expert at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group in Montgomery, Ala. “I also think it’s more widespread than may be obvious to most people. It’s not only neo-nazis and Klansmen -- you expect this kind of reaction from them.”
Controversy over the Jena Six case has been percolating for months but it exploded into national view Thursday when a large crowd of peaceful demonstrators from around the country marched through the central Louisiana town.
They came to support the six black high school students who were initially charged by the local prosecutor with attempted murder for attacking Barker, a white classmate who was beaten and knocked briefly unconscious in December. The charges were later reduced to aggravated second-degree battery.
The incident capped months of racial unrest after three white students hung nooses from a shade tree at the high school after black students asked permission to sit under it. School officials dismissed the noose incident as a prank, angering black students and their parents and triggering a series of fights between whites and blacks. The whites involved were charged with misdemeanors or not at all; the blacks drew various felony charges.
McMillin has insisted that his town is being unfairly portrayed as racist -- an assertion the mayor repeated in an interview with Richard Barrett, the leader of the Nationalist Movement, a white-supremacist group based in Learned, Miss., who asked McMillan to “set aside some place for those opposing the colored folks.”
“I am not endorsing any demonstrations, but I do appreciate what you are trying to do,” Barrett quoted McMillin as saying. “Your moral support means a lot.” McMillin did not return calls seeking comment Monday.
Barker’s father, David, said his family did not know the nature of Barrett’s group when they agreed to be interviewed, adding, “I am not a white supremacist, and neither is my son.” But Barrett said he explained his group and its beliefs to the Barker family, who then invited him to stay overnight at their home on the eve of last week’s protest march.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson said he had grown so concerned about white extremists’ threats against the defendants’ families and perceived injustices in the town that he called the White House over the weekend to ask for immediate federal intervention.
Jackson said the acting head of the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division told him that the agency had begun investigating the Jena situation.