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Last Updated: Friday, 21 September 2007, 07:56 GMT 08:56 UK
Huge rally in small-town Louisiana
By Andy Gallacher
BBC News, Jena

Protesters march through Jena
Thousands of activists marched to the local courthouse

The plight of the "Jena Six", a group of black teenagers who were initially charged with attempted murder after beating a white classmate, has provoked one of the biggest civil rights demonstrations in the US in recent years.

Protesters converged on the small Louisiana town of Jena to demonstrate against what they said was a double standard of prosecution for blacks and whites.

They came in their thousands, protesters from across the United States carrying banners and signs that declared "Free the Jena six" and "Enough is enough".

There were nowhere near the 60,000 people that some had predicted. Nonetheless, this small town was swamped by people eager to show their support and have their voices heard.

Monica Pearson made the relatively short journey from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

"This is a worthy cause and, like my sign says, justice for justice," she said, holding a placard.

"It's a very peaceful march and it's about justice," she added.

That was a word on many of the protesters' lips in Jena.

Hangman's noose

They came, primarily, to show their support for Mychal Bell, who has been locked in a Louisiana prison since December.

We live a simple life and I'm not racist, this is just blown completely out of proportion
Local resident

He, along with five other black teenage boys, was initially charged with attempted murder after they allegedly attacked a white pupil at their school in Jena.

Racial tensions had been running high at the school after three nooses were found hanging from a tree in the school yard, the day after a black pupil had sat in its shade.

The three white pupils responsible for that act were not disciplined, and that was at the heart of what the protest in Jena was all about.

"What do you call hangman's nooses but racism?" said the Reverend Al Sharpton, a prominent civil rights activist and one of the organisers of the rally.

He, along with many other high profile speakers and politicians, has been backing the six boys since the incident last September.

The charges against Mychal Bell were dropped from attempted murder to attempted battery.

While some of the speakers in Jena thought the six boys should face some kind of disciplinary action, this case for many is an example of a justice system skewed against African-Americans.

'Out of proportion'

But some of the members of Jena's white community saw the day very differently.

One woman, who did not give her name, was typical of many.

Protesters during the march in Jena, on wearing Ku Klux Klan outfit
Many protesters recalled the South's troubled past
"I don't agree with all this, it's just a mess, it's ruining our town," she said.

"We live a simple life and I'm not racist. This is just blown completely out of proportion."

The case of the Jena six, as they have now become known, has now received worldwide attention.

Many of the protesters said that it was just one case among many that demonstrate a racist judicial system.

"All of these families are suffering," said Mr Sharpton, shortly after visiting Mychal Bell in jail.

"The people in Jena underestimated the kind of support they would get. We brought in these thousands of people. It's about these six kids walking out of this unfair situation together."

Other prominent speakers, including Martin Luther King III, also came to show their support.

Presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have reportedly issued statements voicing their concerns about the case.

The six boys are still awaiting their fate but those who turned out in Jena have promised to continue supporting what is now one of America's most high profile cases.

The Rev Al Sharpton speaks about the rally

'Stealth racism' stalks deep South
24 May 07 |  This World
Protesters highlight US race row
21 Sep 07 |  Americas
Timeline: United States of America
25 May 07 |  Country profiles

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