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Jesse Jackson: Obama needs to bring more attention to Jena 6

  • Story Highlights
  • The State newspaper: Jackson says Obama "acting like he's white" in Jena case
  • Jackson tells The State he does not recall making comment
  • Civil rights leader later applauded Obama for "speaking out" on issue
  • Obama hopes prosecutor will "reconsider the excessive charges"
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Rev. Jesse Jackson criticized Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama on Tuesday over his reaction to the arrest of six black juveniles in Jena, Louisiana, on murder charges, accusing the Illinois senator of "acting like he's white," according to a South Carolina newspaper.

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The Rev. Jesse Jackson speaks to the press Tuesday in Jena, Louisiana.

The comments reportedly came during a speech at Benedict College, a historically black college in Columbia, South Carolina.

The newspaper reports Jackson later said he did not recall saying Obama is "acting like he's white," but continued to condemn the Illinois Democrat as well as the other presidential candidates for not bringing more attention to this issue.

He also said Obama needs to be "bolder" in his stances if he wants to make inroads in South Carolina. Obama currently trails rival Sen. Hillary Clinton in South Carolina by 18 points, according to a recent LA Times/Bloomberg poll.

In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, Obama said his previous statments about the Jena 6 case "were carefully thought out" with input from his national campaign chairman and Jackson's son, Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., D-Illinois.

"Outrage over an injustice like the Jena 6 isn't a matter of black and white. It's a matter of right and wrong," he said in the statement.

Jackson, who ran for president twice in the 1980s, endorsed Obama's White House bid earlier in the year. Jackson won the South Carolina Democratic primary, where African American voters play an influential role, in both presidential bids.

"If I were a candidate, I'd be all over Jena," the prominent civil rights activist said Tuesday in Columbia, South Carolina, the The State newspaper reports. "Jena is a defining moment, just like Selma was a defining moment."

In a statement released Wednesday, Jackson reaffirmed his support for Obama.

"He has remarkably transcended race, however the impact of Katrina and Jena makes America's unresolved moral dilemma of race unavoidable," he said. " I think Jena is another defining moment of the issue of race and the criminal justice system. This issue requires direct and bold leadership. I commend Sen. Obama for speaking out and demanding fairness on this defining issue. Any attempt to dilute my support for Sen. Obama will not succeed."

Tensions had simmered at Jena High School and in the small town for first three months of the 2006 school year after a black student asked the vice principal if he and some friends could sit under an oak tree where white students typically congregated.

Told by the vice principal they could sit wherever they pleased, the student and his pals sat under the sprawling branches of the shade tree in the campus courtyard.

The next day, students arrived at school to find three nooses hanging from those branches. According to The Town Talk in nearby Alexandria, the school's principal recommended expulsion for those involved in placing the nooses. Instead, the newspaper reported, a school district committee suspended three white students for three days calling the incident just a "prank."

On December 4, several students jumped a white classmate, Justin Barker, knocking him unconscious while stomping and kicking him. The charges against the six blacks -- dubbed the " Jena 6" -- resulted from that incident.

Jackson is slated to be on hand for a march in Jena this Thursday. The Rev. Al Sharpton, Martin Luther King III, and hip-hop artist Mos Def are also expected to be on hand.

Obama formally released a statement on the case Friday evening after one of the teen's charges was thrown out, saying, "I am pleased that the Louisiana state appeals court recognized that the aggravated battery charge brought in this case was inappropriate."

"I hope that today's decision will lead the prosecutor to reconsider the excessive charges brought against all the teenagers in this case," he added. "And I hope that the judicial process will move deliberately to ensure that all of the defendants will receive a fair trial and equal justice under the law."

He also said in a separate statement last week, "When nooses are being hung in high schools in the 21st century, it's a tragedy. It shows that we still have a lot of work to do as a nation to heal our racial tensions. This isn't just Jena's problem; it's America's problem."

CNN Senior Political Analyst Bill Schneider said Obama is under special pressure because he is the only African-American running for president.

But Obama is not of the same generation of black leaders, such as Jackson, who came out of the civil rights moment, Schneider said.

"I think that gives him a special position," Schneider said. "He is running on his appeal -- to white voters as well as to African-American voters -- as a uniter."

"He doesn't want to be a divider in this case," Schneider said.

Meanwhile, Obama's chief rivals for the Democratic nomination, Clinton and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, have also recently condemned the Jena case.

Sen. Clinton said the controversy surrounding the "Jena 6" court case is a "teachable moment for America."

"People need to understand that we cannot let this kind of inequality and injustice happen anywhere in America," the Democratic presidential hopeful told the Rev. Al Sharpton when she called into his nationally syndicated radio program Tuesday afternoon.

At last Saturday's NAACP Freedom Fund Dinner in Charleston South Carolina, Clinton said, "There is no excuse for the way the legal system treated those young people. ... This case reminds us that the scales of justice are seriously out of balance when it comes to charging, sentencing, and punishing African-Americans."

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"It cries out for a full investigation from the Department of Justice's Civil Rights division."

Edwards released a statement Wednesday morning, saying "as someone who grew up in the segregated South, I feel a special responsibility to speak out on racial intolerance. Americans of all races are traveling to Jena because they believe that how we respond to the racial tensions in Jena says everything about who we are as a nation." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Alexander Mooney contributed to this report.

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