The 1960s civil rights movement was a decade that produced many heroes. Among them are Martin Luther King, Jr., Medger Evers, and John Lewis, the latter of whom led the marchers at Selma against brutal policemen with tear gas and attack dogs. I had the privilege of meeting Rep. Lewis at a lunch at the Capitol a few years ago, and hearing him tell his story at the table gave me goosebumps.
On the flip side, I've been deflated by recent coverage (as judged by the plethora of newspaper articles and Facebook petitions) of the "Jena 6", a group of black teenagers facing serious charges in the aftermath of racial tension and violence in their small Louisiana town. Unfortunately, without even delving into the details of this cause célèbre, it's hard to overlook the fact that there is nothing heroic or noble about a group of teenagers beating someone up.
As we've learned (or as the Wikipedia entry documents), this town sadly has a deplorable state of racial affairs between blacks and whites. I am disappointed to see that in the year 2007 there are still places in this country where bitter, overt, and irrational hatred exists. And I obviously feel bad that the Jena 6 may have had poor legal representation, and that they may have to face unimaginably long prison sentences that will all but ruin their lives.
Yet the fact that these six Louisiana teenagers are the face of today's civil rights crusade reveals a troubling detail. It used to be that we marched for messages of equality and non-violence. The kids that everyone is marching for today engaged in violent criminal behavior that was both a symptom, as well as a continuing cause, of racism. These kids, and other blacks and whites in the city, engaged in a relentless cycle of destructive behavior.
When the current trials are over, and all is said and done, will anything have changed in Jena, L.A.? Life for both whites and blacks will likely be worse than before, if that is even possible. This wasn't Dr. King's "Dream", this is a nightmare.