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Commentary: 'Jena 6' rally was about equal justice, not race

  • Story Highlights
  • Thousands of protesters converge on Jena, Louisiana, in support of the "Jena 6"
  • The teens are charged with beating a white classmate
  • Martin: Rather than a black-white issue, this is a matter of defining equal justice
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By Roland S. Martin
CNN contributor
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(CNN) -- As I watched thousands of people gather in Jena, Louisiana, via CNN and, tears were streaming down my face.


Roland Martin says he wishes the crowds in Jena, Louisiana, were far more integrated.

Even though I was doing my radio show on WVON-AM in Chicago at the time, it was truly emotional watching the display.

It was reminiscent of the Million Man March in 1995, when black men gathered in the nation's capital in a mass show of unity.

As a 38-year-old African-American man, I have no memory of the Civil Rights Movement.

I was born November 14, 1968, and Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated seven months earlier.

His death, in many ways, signaled an end to that long but peaceful resistance against America's systemic and deeply rooted oppression of African-Americans.

It was great seeing so many people exercising their free speech and right to protest, but to also demand a change to what they felt is an unjust legal system.

Many people have commented on what is taking place in Jena, with some suggesting that the six black teens accused of beating a white teen deserve years in prison, while others say they should be freed. Video Watch Martin talk about the rally and the case »

It is true that Justin Barker, a white teen, was beaten and left unconscious. The disturbing photos clearly show that.

Yet, the question as to whether a school fight -- one that sent Barker to the hospital, only to see him released the same day and attend a party that night -- warranted the teens to be charged with attempted murder.

Folks, that's the primary reason for the outrage that you have seen and heard.

Much of the reporting and commentary on this has been shallow, choosing to see it as a black-white issue, as opposed to the various views of how do you define equal justice in America.

Let's try this exercise for a moment. We can remove all racial tags and ask ourselves some critical questions.

  • If you heard that six teens had beaten up another teen leaving him unconscious, would you think that those accused deserved to be tried as adults and face upwards of 80 years in jail?
  • If a group of teens hung a noose on a tree, and the principal recommended to expel them, and then the school board overruled them, what would you say about that?
  • Prior to Justin Barker being beaten, another teen (who was black) was beaten, and no charges were filed against the (white) students in that case, would you question the district attorney's action in Barker's case?
  • Lady Justice in America is supposed to be blind. We all want to have confidence in our legal system so that when someone is prosecuted, it is fair and just. But so many people know that is not the case.

    Look at O.J. Simpson. Thirteen years later, people are still mad that he got off.

    Fine. So if you're mad about O.J., are you equally offended about Jena?

    Frankly, I wish the crowds in Jena were far more integrated. I was hoping more whites would show up to express their displeasure with this justice system. And I am hoping that those who see this case -- and O.J. -- as wrong will look at the case of former Chicago police commander Jon Burge, who has been accused of leading the torture of upwards of 200 black and Hispanic men over nearly two decades.

    Many of them went to prison based on beaten confessions, and when they were freed, the city paid millions in settlements.

    But what happened to Burge? He's sitting in his Florida home, collecting a big pension, while the city spends millions defending him (because he was a city employee). He has never been charged.

    We can travel all across America and find case after case after case of men and women who have been wrongfully imprisoned, some sitting on the doorsteps of the death chamber.

    What should we take away from Jena? We must all be vigilant in demanding that our legal system is fair and just. We must not be silent and say it's not in our backyard, so therefore it doesn't matter.

    It might be the Jena 6 today, and it just might be your household tomorrow.

    Write. Call. E-mail. Petition. Protest. If all of that leads to more fairness and equality, then the march was valuable.

    Your race doesn't matter in this. Your voice is what counts.


    Roland S. Martin is a nationally award-winning, multifaceted journalist and CNN contributor. Martin is studying to receive his master's degree in Christian Communications at Louisiana Baptist University, and is the author of "Listening to the Spirit Within: 50 Perspectives on Faith." You can read more of his columns at

    The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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