When we advocated school integration, I never expected that we would have to teach our children to accept humiliation and racist threats without fighting back. But obviously that is subtle meaning behind the guilty plea of Jena 6 Mychal Bell. In reaction to the nooses hanging across a schoolyard tree, some people feel that the black Jena High School youth should have gone about their business unperturbed.
It is okay for an old black man like me to turn the other cheek, because I have been around long enough to see why the Lord said, “Vengeance is mine.” He has always avenged me against my enemies.
But I have never taught my children to be docile and accept humiliation, abuse, and violence against them. Never!
I have always taught them to avoid trouble. But if trouble is going to come, let it come to them and not them to it. From this vantage point, they can see trouble coming afar off and make up their mind how to react long before it reaches them. I teach them: If trouble comes and there is no out, stand your ground and defend yourself.
Was 17-year old Mychal Bell guilty of a criminal offense for punching out a white schoolmate? By his own mouth, he says that he was. His plea bargain was an admission of guilt and culpability of a criminal offence. But lack of political education led him to believe that he was guilty of something more than a simple high school infraction.
It was important for white authorities to convince him that he actually committed a crime, justifiably punishable under the law. The whole ordeal, when looking at the facts, could have been dealt with as a school disciplinary matter, as in the case of the white students. At least, this is the way most high schools in the "civilized" world deal with such incidents. But isolated in a hick back-wood community, people have no outside reference as to how the rest of the "civilized" world handle minor offenses such as these. And worse, no one ever told Mychal Bell that his fight was not “attempted murder”. The district attorney obviously convinced him, his parents, and the Jena community otherwise. And, for a while, Reed Walters had everybody going until he was rebuked by the appeals court.
Like most poor blacks standing before the criminal justice system, the plea bargain offered an easy way. Since Bell was already serving a probated sentence for previous convictions, another 18-month sentence running concurrent meant that there would be not additional damage. He could plead guilty and personally, for him, he could rest a little easier.
Why did his lawyers allow it? First, lawyers are obligated to present their client with the plea offer from the prosecutor. Second, they cannot advise their client not to take the offer. Third, Bell had no “political” mentor, only a bunch of goodhearted people, well-wishers, and supporters- but no real “fighters”.
What does his guilty plea do to the rest of us black parents and grandparents? We are forced to teach our children what was taught to us. We must teach them to accept white insults without backtalk or retaliation. Otherwise they run the risk of expulsion from school and prosecution by the criminal justice system.
We must teach them that non-violent protest is useless against the powers-that-be. Why? Remember when the white students hung the nooses across the schoolyard tree? The black students initially reacted with a non-violent protest? What did it get them? It got them more taunting and humiliation, plus threats from the district attorney who, in fact, went on to fulfill those threats.
In the eyes of the Jena 6 persecutors, if nooses were again to dangle from the schoolyard tree, they would expect black students to do nothing, to ignore the obvious threat, to go on about their business in school without protest or striking back. If they complain, they can be expected to be treated as their parents were treated when they presented the issue to the Jena school board.
When all of these non-violent expressions of grievance fail, they have only one other legal resort. “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord.