The Jena Six case sparked a disturbing trend from NY to Minnesota: nooses. What does it mean?
Across the nation, nooses -- an enduring symbol of hate born more than a century ago in the Deep South -- have been left at offices, theaters and historic ships, fire houses and police stations, on a bronzed statue of the late rapper Tupac Shakur and even at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.
The most prominent incident happened in Jena, La., when the discovery of a noose hanging from a schoolyard tree escalated into a student brawl. Eventually, six black teens -- known as the Jena Six -- were charged in the beating of a white student.
Now, as federal authorities investigate individual cases, a larger question arises: What do the nooses represent?
'Replacing the burning cross'
Some consider them a barometer of American race relations. Others call them misguided pranks to which people have overreacted.
"The noose is replacing the burning cross in the minds of many white people as the primary symbol of the Klan," says Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project for the South Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate crimes. Potok said in a typical year, about half a dozen noose cases are reported. This year, "we know of about 50 already," he said.
"I think this represents a fairly broad and deep white reaction to Jena Six. They believe the events in Jena were distorted by a politically correct machine."
Last month, civil rights leaders lobbied Congress to add noose-related incidents to hate-crime statutes and to toughen penalties. "Hanging nooses or hanging people or swastikas -- these are provocative hate crimes," the Rev. Jesse Jackson said.
To protest the cases, a coalition of leaders, radio personalities and professionals announced a Nov. 16 march on the nation's capital.
The Jena case started at the beginning of school last year when a black student asked the vice principal if he could sit under the "white tree." He was told to sit wherever he chose. The next day, three nooses were hanging from the oak. In December, with racial tension simmering, six black students jumped a white boy. He was taken to the hospital but was able to attend a class ring ceremony later that day. The black students were charged with attempted murder.
The case grew into a cause celebre as people nationwide questioned what they believed was uneven justice. Others said the case involved teen pranks and fights unfairly blown out of proportion into a national litmus test on race.
Rooted in a dark history
What few would deny is that the sight of a noose still sends shivers through the black community. Between 1882 and 1968, there were a documented 4,743 lynchings in the United States. Most of the victims were black men. "There are people who don't understand the history and enormity of the role lynchings playing in this country," says Carmen Van Kerckhove, who runs New Demographic, an anti-racism training company. "What's most shocking is when you learn lynchings were treated as celebratory. The entire community would come out and make a day of it."
Now the noose has returned to the nation's consciousness. Nooses have been looped over a tree at the University of Maryland; draped on the doorknob of a black Columbia University professor's office; and found in a black Coast Guard cadet's bag and in a post office near Ground Zero.
In the Minnesota case, an assistant editor at a college newspaper hung a noose as a motivational tool. He was fired in the incident, but was cleared of bigotry. After an inquiry, the college said it found no evidence that the act was racially motivated.