The White Tree

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This is a true story.

There was this tree in the heart of Louisiana, but the tree was no ordinary tree. The tree was only allowed to offer shade to white people. Sadly, the tree was more than just a tree, it was a symbol of the legacy of racial segregation in the US south and its refusal to die, but instead of allowing the tree to protect all people, regardless of the color of their skin, against the hot Louisiana sun, it was felled. That’s right, instead of combating racism and segregation, instead of allowing people of all races to socialize beneath the tree, the people believed it was easier to just cut the tree down.

This story didn’t take place in the pre-Civil Rights south; it took place in 2007.

The tree lived on the campus of Jena High School. White kids were the only ones allowed to congregate under the tree.

–” At an assembly that kicked off classes, a black freshman asked the white principal if black students could sit under ‘the white tree’ — a shade tree where only white students regularly sat. The answer was, ‘You can sit anywhere you want.'”

The Black kids organized a tree sit-under, and a fight broke out. Six Black kids were arrested for the fight and they were charged with attempted murder. One of the Black kids faces up to 22 years in prison for the tree-desegregation brawl. No white kids were hurt in the fight and none were arrested.

The story began long before the fight that caused the arrest of the six Black kids; now know as the Jena Six.

–“A few weeks after the nooses were discovered in September, an arsonist torched a wing of Jena High School. Race fights roiled the town for days, culminating in a schoolyard brawl that led the LaSalle Parish district attorney to charge six black teenagers with attempted murder for beating up a white teenager who suffered no life-threatening injuries.”

Also, before the arrest, District Attorney, Reed Walters, threatened the Black kids about their tree-activism, “I can make your life go away with the stroke of a pen.”

Scooter Libby’s sentence is commuted and Black kids suffer extraordinarily harsh sentences for minor crimes.

— “Zealous prosecutions of black youngsters are multiplying across the nation, they say. They cite three highly visible cases in which white prosecutors won prison sentences of up to 10 years against black teenagers, only to have those sentences voided on appeal.”
Well, at least the sentences are voided on appeal…

“We are seeing two systems of justice: one system of justice for white folks and one system of justice for black folks,” said Jordan Flaherty, an editor who is following the Louisiana case for Left Turn magazine, an liberal activist publication based in New York. “If this had been a fight between only black students, there would not have been this penalty,” said Flaherty, who is white. “This is not a group of kids with a history of trouble, but they do have a history of speaking out.”

These kids hail from a race of people with a history of “speaking out”, and their activism is inspirational. Appeals are planned for the Jena Six.

As for the tree, ” town leaders were looking for a fresh start, a way to erase the recent memory of Jim Crow-like hangman’s nooses dangling from a shade tree at the local high school. So they cut the tree down.”