Locals join nation in protest over emotional beating case

People bow their heads in prayer outside city hall in downtown Rock Hill on Thursday at a prayer vigil held in support of the "Jena 6."
People bow their heads in prayer outside city hall in downtown Rock Hill on Thursday at a prayer vigil held in support of the "Jena 6."

From a cell phone 20 miles outside Jackson, Miss., four men in a seven-passenger rental van raved about the thousands of people, like them, who united in Jena, La., Thursday to declare that justice shouldn't discriminate.

"I think we made a statement to the world," said Dennis Wilson, a York man who used his vacation time to go to Louisiana and support the so-called "Jena 6," six black teens from a small Louisiana town who were charged with attempted murder after a white student was beaten.

"No longer can we afford to stand idly by and accept injustices," said Wilson, a member of the Western York County NAACP. "The residents and the law enforcement of Jena was awakened this morning. I think they were surprised today to realize and see how many people responded to the call of justice."

The incident that landed the "Jena 6" in jail followed white-on-black attacks in Jena -- where white assailants were not charged -- and came after white students hung nooses from a tree in the high school courtyard.

The attempted murder charges against the black teens were later reduced, and last week an appeals court reversed the conviction of one of the six.

Spurred by talk radio, e-mails, Internet blogs and message boards, Thursday's rally emerged organically, without distinctive leadership.

But people came.

When they arrived in tiny Jena around 8 a.m., buses were already lined up "as far as you could see," said Willie Davis of the Western York County NAACP.

The crowd was so large the four men had to park the rental about five miles outside of town and walked the rest of the way.

People were there from California, New York and even Canada. Most were black, but whites and other races also showed. The crowd sported numerous supportive signs and T-shirts.

"It's uplifting," said the Rev. Keith Hunter, another passenger on the van. "It makes me know that there's still a God somewhere. ... I think the last time I witnessed anything like this it was when I attended the 30th anniversary of the March on Washington."

All of Jena's businesses were closed. The American Red Cross gave thirsty people water. The protest was calm.

"It was very peaceful," Davis said. "Even the police was nice."

Many people wore black as a sign of unity. They marched from the Jena courthouse to a school and back. Some chanted about justice; others sang old spirituals. Many were children, high school and college students.

"There was just something in the air," said La'Jessica Stringfellow, a 17-year-old Chester High School senior. She said the atmosphere was charged with the excitement of people who had come together for a common cause.

"It was wonderful," she said.

Classmate Danielle Worthy, also 17, said the event reminded her of what she'd read about the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

"It feels like we're doing that all over again in 2007," she said. "It makes you feel really important."

Stringfellow and Worthy were part of a group of 47 people who rode all night on a bus from Chester. They arrived in Jena at 5 a.m.

"We're so fired up we haven't been to bed yet," Chester NAACP president Bill Stringfellow said late Thursday afternoon as the bus returned to South Carolina.

While protesters united in Jena, more than 30 people gathered outside Rock Hill's City Hall at noon for their own show of support.

"We're doing our communities and congregations a disservice if we don't speak out, said Alvin Murdock, pastor of Christ Deliverance Church.

The Rock Hill service also drew people such as Rock Hill mother Sharon White, who worries about a "Jena 6" happening here.

"That could have easily been one of my kids," she said.

Tracey Jones, a city public works employee, stopped by the service during a break from his job.

"You can't believe it's still happening," he said of racial injustice. "It's 2007 and it's still going on. ... It's just not right."