Date: Sat, 6 Oct 2007 08:36:07 -0500 (CDT)
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Subject: [NYTr] The Jena 6 and Black Leadership
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Freedom Archives News list—Oct 5, 2007

Living for change: the Jena 6 and Black leadership

By Stephen Ward, The Michigan Citizen, 7–13 October 2007

Many people view the September 20 march in Jena as a re-kindling of the spirit of the civil rights movement. With thousands of peaceful marchers, nationally recognized figures (Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and Martin Luther King III), and the bright lights of the national news media, the march did appear to be in the mode of the 50s and 60s.

But this should not lead us to view the Jena 6 case as simply a continuation of 1950s racism or to suggest that bnothing has changed..b To do so not only disrespects the efforts of those who made monumental contributions to our struggle and to our society during that period, but also ignores the unique circumstances and great challenges of our time.

The aim of today's struggles should not and cannot be to reproduce the protests of the civil rights era. Those struggles were designed to draw the nation'ls attention to the brutal injustice of Jim Crow segregation, mobilize African American communities, and force the federal government to secure the rights of black citizens—with the underlying goal of full access for black people into the institutions of American life.

What are the goals of today's protests? White supremacist ideas and practices still confront us, but the world in which we live and the forces against which we struggle today are in many ways different. Despite obvious similarities, the blatant injustice in the Jena 6 case is not a reflection of 1950s Jim Crow injustice. Rather, it is a manifestation of a 21st century criminal justice system that overpolices and criminalizes black youth. It is not, then, a matter of access to the system, but a need to transform the system.

Nostalgia for the 1960s can also be disempowering for young people who are searching for models of activism and organizing. It tends to re-inscribe the primacy of charismatic leaders like Sharpton and Jackson who take their place at the front of the march, draw the cameras and provide the sound bites. This type of leadership is designed for public spectacle, not serious movement building. Their talents and commitments notwithstanding, Sharpton and Jackson remain stuck in a mode of protest politics that is increasingly out of line with current realities and challenges.

Which brings us to the wide and impressive participation of young African Americans in the Jena 6 mobilization. To uncover and nurture the emerging black leadership that I believe is inherent in this mobilization, we need to ask young people why so many of them were moved to protest the injustice in Jena. There are obvious answers — outrage at the unfair treatment of their peers; a basic sense of fairness, etc. But to engage them in a substantive discussion of this question is to seek a deeper understanding of how black youth see the world and their relationship to it and invite them to share their visions for changing the world.

We should also ask young people what participation in the march meant to them. They have already begun to tell us. For example, Citizen readers will recall that Amber Jeffries, a seventh grade student at Nsoroma, wrote that her participation in the protest “was life-changing” (September 30, 2007). University of Michigan students who participated in the protest organized a program titled “From Jim Crow to Jena 6” on Sept. 26 to share their experiences and discuss the meanings of the case. They also described their participation as a powerful, life-changing experience.

These and other statements from young people saying that they were changed forever through this protest highlight the central importance of transformation in black leadership. Let us develop leaders who seek both to transform themselves (that is, to continually grow, develop their capacity for political action, and realize their fullest potential) while also working to transform the society.

The Jena 6 case can help to do this if we use it to foster an interdisciplinary dialogue and a substantive, sustained discourse (and mobilization) within black communities around the criminally unjust system—as well as the crisis of our schools (the Jena 6 case, after all, began within the context of a school). In this way we can begin to imagine and engage in struggles to transform these systems so that they work for our youth.