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Jena march stirs memory of civil rights protest in '63

This 39-year-old lady with two kids who did other people's laundry for a living didn't know that by riding a bus in 1963, she would forever be a demonstrator.

But like people from her hometown of Rock Hill did Thursday in Jena, La., Johnie Mae Coachman 44 years ago stopped being a mother and laundress and became a protester.

"We were demonstrating, so I guess I was a demonstrator," said this regal woman, now 83, who has followed the events in Jena since six black teens were charged with attempted murder. She needs no one to tell her to follow the news of injustice. She knows riding into uncertainty, armed only with righteousness.

"Jim Crow, I was born into that," Coachman said. "I certainly know it when I see it."

She needs no one to tell her that three nooses hung from a tree at a school, a symbol of hate that started violence that became arrests and convictions that led to Thursday's demonstrations.

"It made me sick," she said. Nooses from trees for Coachman mean only memories of black necks in nooses hanging from trees.

As the people from Rock Hill, York and Chester stood, clapped and shouted in Jena on Thursday, Coachman remembered how she spent $6 on a round-trip ticket, packed a lunch and made history. She was one of a half-million or so who went to Washington, D.C., for the rally where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the "I Have a Dream" speech.

The world didn't change that day. Or the day after or the year after. But it did change.

Demonstrations forged this country. During the Persian Gulf War, Coachman knitted a huge quilt of the American flag. It was called the Patriotism Quilt, and she displayed it and had her picture made with it. She is a patriot like her late husband who served in World War II, so she marched and protested years ago to close the ThermalKem plant in York County. The courts finally noticed, and the air at her church near that plant didn't stink anymore.

"I love this country," Coachman said. "We have come such a long, long, way."

But that long way depends on whether the television shows a march for justice in Jena, or a walk along South Wilson Street in Rock Hill. Below a certain spot south of the post office is what the people who live there, black people, call a black neighborhood. I drove and walked along that street Thursday at the same time as people marched in Jena. I asked one guy if the march would happen in Rock Hill and he said, "Not on this street."

I asked why, and he said, "We don't have any sidewalks on this street."

Injustice can be in courts, or on streets that are cracked with people walking in them because there is no sidewalk.

On a television in the Minute Grill on South Wilson Street, where black men eat and talk because that is their choice as free Americans, a prosecutor from Jena told the world at a news conference that the case in Jena was not about race.

I waited for him to say that daylight is not about the sun.

I later asked Johnie Mae Coachman if Thursday's demonstration in Jena would make any difference. That demonstration all those years ago, people using free speech that so many who claim to be patriots refuse to wield, "gave us hope," Coachman said.

I asked her if she meant black people and she said no. She said she meant all people.

In 2003, the city of Rock Hill gave out an award to Coachman the demonstrator that was for "extraordinary dedication" to her "fellow citizens."

"I don't hate anybody," Coachman said. "Never have. I don't dislike anybody. Never have. Never will. We shouldn't have this in the United States, this prejudice."

But then she said that we do have prejudice in the South, in America. She said it at almost the same time Thursday that people from her area who are preachers and warehouse workers were in a demonstration in Louisiana. A place where men and women became demonstrators, in what might be the finest American tradition there is.

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