Jena Is More than Jena and a Noose Is More than a Nuisance

News at Home

Mr. Davidson is a historian and the author of the recently published ‘They Say’: Ida B. Wells and the Reconstruction of Race.

There’s no need any longer to make Jena, Louisiana our whipping boy. Over the past few weeks the New York Times, the Washington Post and other papers have catalogued a string of incidents in which nooses were displayed in New York City, Long Island, College Park, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Macon, Greensboro, and San Antonio.

The nooses were hung on flagpoles, strung up in a police locker room, placed on a Coast Guard ship, dangled from the stage of a Memphis theater, looped over the door of a professor’s office, and displayed with the blackened face of a stuffed animal stuck through.

Meanwhile some folks in Jena were looking to put the troubles there in a more hopeful light. “If you compare us today to fifty years ago,” pointed out one school board member, “we have come a long way.”

No doubt the nation has come even further from the nadir of race relations in the 1890s, when the redoubtable Ida B. Wells of Memphis began her campaign against lynching. Born a slave around the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, Wells was a schoolteacher before launching her campaign against white violence. During those years, not just noose hangings but lynchings were being reported once or twice a week.

If she were alive today, Wells (or Wells-Barnett as she was known, after marrying in 1895) would surely grant the progress made. But the lynching in 1892 that led her to become an activist bears more than a little similarity to the incident at Jena. Not in the level of violence, but in the way events unfolded and the way the nation reacted to them.

Jena began with a schoolyard quarrel: black students asking if they could sit under a tree where whites congregated; two nooses hung in evident retaliation; several brawls the following week. In Memphis in 1892, the spark was a fight over a game of marbles at “the Bend,” a section on the city outskirts. A black boy bested a white boy in a scuffle; the white boy’s father thrashed the black boy; black parents gathered to protest.

The violence soon escalated. Plainclothes police raided a nearby black-owned grocery, sent there by the white owner of a rival grocery. When the black proprietors opened fire on what they believed was a lawless mob, they and other bystanders were arrested. Four nights later a real mob snatched the storeowners from jail and riddled them with bullets.

At the time Wells had already left teaching to become a journalist protesting the deteriorating state of race relations. “Separate car” laws were being enacted for intercity railroads, as a full-blown policy of segregation spread across the South. Twice Wells was ejected from the first-class “ladies car,” and twice she successfully sued the railroads for damages. (The Tennessee supreme court eventually ruled against her on appeal.)

Wells was out of town when the Memphis lynching occurred. Her absence, though, may have helped open her eyes to the underlying dynamics of lynching. Being away, she had to glean her information from white newspaper accounts, which spoke breathlessly about a “nest of turbulent and unruly negroes” who provoked the police.

But in this case Wells knew the accused personally. Thomas Moss was a close friend, a gentle and decent man. One of the supposedly “unruly” storeowners, he was found lying in a pool of blood, still carrying the pamphlets he used to teach Sunday school.

The massive distortions in the newspapers led Wells to realize that the other accounts of black crimes and white mobs were murky at best and utterly unreliable at worst. In the future, when news of a lynching broke, her first move was to travel to the scene to obtain direct information.

With Jena, the national press has shown only modest interest in imitating Wells. Most stories have relied on local accounts, concentrating on whether residents believed media coverage to be “fair.” The Jena Times, swamped by an “overwhelming number of requests from outside media,” assembled a chronology that firmly stated, among other things, that “there was no racial motivation behind the nooses and that the incident was a prank.” According to a child welfare supervisor who interviewed the perpetrators, “They honestly had no knowledge of the history concerning nooses and black citizens. This may seem hard to believe for some people, but this is exactly what everyone on the committee determined.”

Wells would have snorted in disbelief. If the nooses were not meant to intimidate, what was the point of this innocent “prank”? Why a noose and not, let us say, jockey shorts hung from the tree? What were the boys thinking and what was their motivation? On this the Jena Times remained mum. And even if the boys had “no knowledge of the history” of lynching, what does this say about the state of social studies courses being taught?

But we need not—should not—focus on Jena alone. The latest rash of noose sightings makes clear that intimidation remains at the heart of the act. Stay in your place. Keep away from white jobs.

At the construction site near Pittsburgh where one noose turned up, the white boss dismissed its placement as “just a joke.” Another “prank,” like Jena.

Wells understood differently. Lynching “is a national crime and requires a national remedy,” she insisted in her day. We should be exploring why, despite the demise of lynching, nooses and intimidation remain a clear threat to the wellbeing our nation. The press should lead the way.

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William Blair Case - 11/14/2007

Hanging stuff from the tree at Jena High School was a tradition, particularly during football season. The three white students say they hung the nooses to poke fun at friends who were members of the school rodeo team an idea they say they got from the lynching scene in the movie Lonesome Dove. Nooses, called lassoes or lariats, are used in many rodeo events. This is why they hung nooses rather than jockey shorts. The explanation is not ridiculed by federal agents and local authorities who have actually investigated the incident. They are on record saying they believe the three students are telling the truth.

Jena High School students and teachers say that students of both races congregated beneath the so called “white tree” from time to tome. A single black student, who had noticed a group of white students sitting beneath the tree, asked if he could sit beneath the tree at a start-of-school assembly, but he posed the question in jest, and the entire auditorium erupted in laughter. The assistant principal told him, “You know you can sit anywhere you want.” The mainstream media no longer makes reference to a “white tree.” Instead, reporters reference a tree where “white students tended to gather.”

The “several brawls the following week” never happen. Between the noose-hanging incident and the Jena Six beating, which occurred months later, the Jena High School administration says there were only two interracial fights: a white female student got into a scuffle with a black female student and a black student hit a white student in the back of the head as he walked down the hall. The school administration says neither of these two incidents was racially motivated.

One member of the Jena Six did get into a fight with a 22-year-old white adult at a private party. The fight broke out when a group of teenagers tried to crash the invitation-only party and refused to go when one of the hosts asked them to leave. Teenagers crashing party is a constant source of violence across the nation. The white adult was charged with battery. He pleaded guilty and was place on parole because it was his first offense. This led to a second altercation at a Jena convenience store between the teenagers who had tried to crash the party and another white adult, who had been at the party. Neither of these two incidents had anything to do with the noose-hanging incident; however, they did lead to the Jena Six beating incident. According to witnesses, the Jena Six attacked the white student at Jena High School because they heard he had been discussing the fight at the private party with other students.

Following the Jena Six beating incident, the Justice Department reopened its investigation into the noose-hanging incident and determined there was no link between the nooses and the Jena Six beating incident. U.S. Attorney Donald Washington told CNN that, "A lot of things happened between the noose hanging and the fight occurring, and we have arrived at the conclusion that the fight itself had no connection." He added that none of the black students involved in the beating made “any mention of nooses, of trees, of the 'N' word or any other word of racial hate. As a result, the mainstream press no longer alleges that the noose-hanging incident is directly related to the Jena Six beating incident. Instead, it reports that the beating took place “after” three students hung nooses from a tree. In fairness, the press should report that the beating incident took place fully three months after the noose-hanging incident.

Most historians know that, over the span of U.S. history, more white Americans have been lynched than black Americans. The often quoted number of lynching victims are drawn from NAACP and Tuskegee Institute databases that were largely built on a study conducted by Eliza Stillwater for her book, “The Hangman’s Knot.” Stillwater’s study focused on 10 southern states with the largest black populations and included legal executions as well as lynchings between 1882 and 1930, the height of the Lynch Law Era. About a third of those legally hanged or lynched during the period were white. Blacks were usually hanged or lynched for the same reasons whites were hanged a lynched; that had been convicted of committed a serious crime, usually murder, or were suspected of having committed a serious crime. Stillwater built a convincing case that courts were more likely to sentence blacks than whites to death by hanging, and that the lynch mobs, which were almost always white, were much more likely to lynch blacks than whites. The NAACP expanded Stillwater’s data base by redefining lynching to include, in effect, any racially motivated murder committed by two or more people. It later revised its definition to include racially motivated murders by a single individual, if the individual could reasonably be assumed to be acting on behalf of a larger organization, such as the Ku Klux Klan. In the past 70 years, few lynching have involved nooses. Shotguns and other firearms long ago replaced the hangman noose.

Todfay, most Americans associate hangman nooses with legal executions, western movies, in which the lynching victims are outlaws, cattle rustlers and horse thieves, and suicides. Most people never realized they could be construed as racist symbols until the Jena Six incident made headlines. The hangman noose as been a symbol of dread since the Middle Ages. It’s embedded in the language. The same newspapers that deploy copycat noose hangings frequently use the idiom “tightening the noose” in headlines and article. These references have no racial connotations. One financial news headline from today read, “The Noose Tightens on Subprime Mortgages.”

Most Americans think of burning crosses, not nooses, as standard racist symbolism. This explains the sudden rash of noose-hanging incidents. A significant percentage of the copycat nooses, particularly on or near college campuses, will turn out, if ever solved, to be fake hate crimes committed by people intent on casting themselves or their racial or ethnic group as victims; other nooses were probably hung by mischief makers concerned only with making headlines. The U.S. Army recently concluded a full-scale investigation into a “noose” found hanging outside the gate of one of its largest depots by concluding the noose was a tie-down that had fall off a delivery truck. A noose found in the doctors’ lounge at a large medical center turn out to be an orthopedic device. To date, only one copycat noose hanging appears to be a real hate crime. A teenager has been arrested from hanging nooses from the tailgate of his pickup truck and driving the pickup past Jena Six protestors. By contrast, two students who had claimed to be victims of hate crimes recently confessed they planted swastikas and racial slurs on campus buildings themselves.

Randolph William Baxter - 11/14/2007

Nooses have even appeared out West: Last week, the night before Cal State University Fullerton's 2nd annual "Rally Against Hate Crimes" event, several nooses were placed on a clothesline to be used the following day as part of the rally. No one has come forward to claim responsibility, and the campus community is saddened that such a message -- even as a prank -- would appear here, where no overt racial attacks have occurred in recent memory (though a homophobic attack occurred one night late last summer, in a local alley). For more information, see the CSUF website:

Clark Richards - 11/14/2007

Thanks Walter for your response - I had read excerpts from that report and others with similarities. I think, our nation has become viciously polarized over the last decade because of a lack of journalistic honesty. I think the public has learned from the press that an issue can be "framed" in a variety of ways to serve their own particular interests and the end results, in too many cases, is that the divisiveness that ensues serves no interest.

My criticism of this author is that it sure looks like he is using the popularity of Jena simply to promote his book. Best wishes to you and yours.

walter tucker - 11/12/2007

I read your comment after I had posted mine. If you read the link I provided, and you may have already before your post, the locals think this whole affair was blown totally out of proportion. Of course, the truth is not as sexy as the story reported abd probably would not have gotten the Rev. Al and his ilk to come down to Jena for the never ending dog and pony show of racism.
Racism IS still a major problem everywhere, not just the South. It saddens me that what once was a respected profession, the media, could buy into snippets of information and create a story that was so polarizing to the nation, and yet, to their discredit, not really researched and presented in a factual context.
If you have noticed, this story has cooled down. Perhaps Al is circleing like the vulture he is waiting for the next opportunity to get some press. God knows he can't get it any other way.

walter tucker - 11/12/2007

The truth lies somewhere between what the NATIONAL media reported and what was written by a reporter (editor) of the local paper in Jena. Check out the link below and see if you don't think there was more to the story than was reported.

Clark Richards - 11/12/2007

You've provided my chuckle for the day.
Even as I respond, I'm still laughing.

You have skillfully (or not) taken the Jena affair, which was not primarily a race issue, and used it to promote your book much like the press and other interest groups took an event out of context and the used it to promote their special interests.

Particularly amusing is your following comment- "Why a noose and not, let us say, jockey shorts hung from the tree? What were the boys thinking and what was their motivation? On this the Jena Times remained mum. And even if the boys had “no knowledge of the history” of lynching, what does this say about the state of social studies courses being taught?"

If they were jockey shorts would you question the color? Would the color of the shorts have symbolism? And what about the lack of knowledge about hygiene that might be questioned?

Me thinks there is a logic gap present.