By Jill Smolowe
Updated October 01, 2007 12:00 PM

At first, students treated the nooses strung from the tree in their high school courtyard as little more than a sick joke. Known as the “white tree,” the leafy oak had for generations been the exclusive domain of Caucasian students at Jena High here in tiny Jena, La., population 2,900. Then in September of last year, an African-American junior, having asked permission from a vice principal who told him to sit wherever he liked, joined a group of white kids under the tree. The next day, three nooses—two black, one gold, for the school colors—dangled from the oak’s branches. But rather than provoking outrage, the spectacle seemed to amuse. White and black students alike stuck their heads through the loops, cracked jokes—then continued on to class.

One embattled year, one suspicious school fire and one controversial trial later, nobody in Jena is laughing anymore. On Sept. 20 protesters from around the country, among them top civil rights activists—Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Martin Luther King III—are expected to descend on this rural outpost three hours northwest of Baton Rouge to rally against the “unequal justice” that has painted Jena with a Jim Crow brush. The most incendiary incident involved six black students—now known as the Jena 6—five of whom were charged with attempted murder after kicking a white student last December in response to an alleged racial taunt. In the one trial held so far, football running back Mychal Bell, now 17 and jailed since he was arrested on Dec. 5, was convicted by an all-white jury of the lesser charge of aggravated second-degree battery. He was awaiting a sentence of up to 22 years in prison when an appellate court threw out the conviction Sept. 14, saying the case should have been handled in juvenile court. Those who thought authorities overreacted to the Jena 6 saw this as a sign that justice was nearer at hand. “This is just one [student], and there are six, so it’s a start,” says Alton Dozier, 22, half-brother of Carwin Jones, 18, another member of the Jena 6. “I just want to see everybody treated fairly and justice served equally.”

As cries of “Free the Jena 6” hang in the air, it’s easy to see Jena as a community that never fully awoke from the ugliest days of segregation. And some facts of life, in this modest oil town surrounded by dense pine forests, support the profile. Blacks, who make up 12 percent of the town populace, mostly live in a neighborhood of mobile, frame and brick homes that sits just beyond the city limits in an area known as the Webb Quarters. They pay no city taxes and are entitled neither to vote in mayoral elections nor to enjoy municipal services such as water or garbage pickup. The state law that integrated the schools by 1970 is so skillfully navigated by determined white parents that some black and white kids don’t meet up on a mixed campus until high school. At the same time, however, blacks and whites play together in high school athletics, work side-by-side at the local Wal-Mart and hold doors open for each other. Some black families even live in the white enclave that locals call Snob Hill. In fact, Jena 6er Mychal Bell occasionally used to stay with an older white teammate and his wife. “The media have made the nooses into some kind of identity for our town, but it’s not like that,” says Evie Moser, a white retired teacher.

Defendant Theo Shaw, 18, isn’t so sure. “When I see a noose,” he says, “it makes me think of hate. It makes me think they want me gone, like they want to kill me.” But at the time, Tina Jones, mother of defendant Bryant Purvis, 17, says her son came home and said, “What’s a noose anyway?” The high school principal expelled the three white students who owned up to the act, then was overruled by the superintendant, who imposed a three-day suspension. Though blacks now say they were galled by the light punishment, there the matter ended for three months.

Then on Nov. 30, someone set fire to the school, destroying the main academic building. While neither the who nor the why has been nailed down, the town’s pent-up racial tensions began to shake loose. First, black football player Robert Bailey, then 17, was turned away from a private party by white students, who attacked him with beer bottles and kicked him. (A white boy was later charged with battery and given probation.) A day later, Bailey scuffled again with one of the attackers at the Gotta Go convenience store. Authorities say the white kid pulled a gun, and Bailey wrested it away. This time an arrest was made: Bailey was charged with theft of a firearm. “When you’re black and you’re in trouble with white folks in Jena,” says Hays Harrison, a black retired oil field worker, “there is a very, very high price to pay.”

Two days later there was another scuffle, this one ignited when Justin Barker, 17, a white student friendly with those who hung the nooses, allegedly used a racial slur. A white witness would later tell police a black student knocked Barker unconscious. Then several more black students kicked and hit him. LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters has denied that Barker “provoked the attack by word or gesture.” In any case, Barker was treated at a local hospital and attended a class ceremony that same night.

Things proved a lot worse for the six black kids who were implicated. First, the principal expelled all but the youngest of them. Then, D.A. Walters turned up the heat by charging the five oldest—Bailey, Bell, Jones, Shaw and Purvis—with attempted second-degree murder and announcing they would be tried as adults. That finally got a rise out of the community. “They’re just boys,” says Evie Moser. “White people here don’t think any child should be tried as an adult.” Neither do black people. “They should have all gotten a three-day suspension,” says Nickie Todd, 34, a mother of four sons. “All the kids, black and white, should have been talked to, telling them that everybody just needs to get along.”

Today, the defendants have reason for greater optimism. The last two jailed while they awaited trial were finally freed on bail this past August when their families were able to raise the money. Private attorneys have also secured reduced charges of aggravated battery for all but Bryant Purvis (who will seek reduced charges when he is arraigned Nov. 7), and all will stand trial in the juvenile system. Purvis now attends private school in Texas, where he is living with an uncle. “This has been devastating for me and my family,” says Tina Jones, his mom. “We are thinking about moving because I have a 7-year-old, and I refuse to bring her up in this environment.”

The youngest of the Jena 6 (whose name is being withheld because he was never charged as an adult) is back on the high school football team, where black and white players “seem to get along pretty good,” says his aunt, Delores Brinson. The remaining four defendants say none of the local schools will let them attend classes. Theo Shaw, for one, is eager to get back in class. “I just want to get past this,” he says, “and get back in school so I can go to college.”