The Jena Six were six black teenagers convicted in the beating of Justin Barker, a white student at Jena High School in Jena, Louisiana, on December 4, 2006. Barker was injured in the assault by the members of the Jena Six, and received treatment for his injuries at an emergency room. While the case was pending, it was often cited as an example of racial injustice in the United States, due to a belief that the defendants had initially been charged with too-serious offenses and had been treated unfairly.
A number of events took place in and around Jena in the months preceding the Barker assault which have been linked to an alleged escalation of racial tensions. These events included the hanging of nooses from a tree in the high school courtyard, two violent confrontations between white and black youths, and the destruction by fire of the main building of Jena High School. The incidents were often linked in the extensive news coverage regarding the Jena Six.
Six individuals (Robert Bailey, then aged 17; Mychal Bell, then 16; Carwin Jones, then 18; Bryant Purvis, then 17; Jesse Ray Beard, then 14; and Theo Shaw, then 17) were arrested in the assault on Barker. One, Mychal Bell, was initially convicted as an adult of aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated battery. His convictions were overturned on the grounds that he should have been tried as a juvenile. Prior to a retrial in juvenile court, he pled guilty to a reduced charge of simple battery. The other five defendants later pled no contest, and were convicted of the same offense.
The Jena Six case sparked protests by those viewing the arrests and subsequent charges, initially attempted second-degree murder (though later reduced), as excessive and racially discriminatory. The protesters asserted that white Jena youths involved in other incidents were treated leniently. On September 20, 2007, between 15,000 and 20,000 protesters marched on Jena in what was described as the "largest civil rights demonstration in years".  Related protests were held in other US cities on the same day. Subsequent reactions included songs alluding to the Jena Six, a considerable number of editorials and opinion columns, and Congressional hearings.
At Jena High School, about 10% of students are black and roughly 90% are white, reflecting the population of the town of Jena, which has about 3,000 people. Some early reporting indicated that students of different races seldom sat together, although this has been disputed. According to early reports, black students typically sat on bleachers near the auditorium, while white students sat under a large tree in the center of the school courtyard, referred to as the "white tree" or "prep tree". According to some of the school's teachers and administrators, the tree in question was not a "white tree" and students of all races had sat under it at one time or another.
At a school assembly held on August 31, 2006, a black male freshman asked the principal whether he could sit under the tree. According to Donald Washington, United States Attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, the principal stated that the question was posed in a "jocular fashion". The principal told the students they could "sit wherever they wanted". According to some reports, the freshman and his friends then sat under the tree.
The following morning, nooses were discovered hanging from the tree; reports differ as to whether there were two or three nooses. A black teacher described seeing both white and black students "playing with [the nooses], pulling on them, jump-swinging from them, and putting their heads through them" that same day. Craig Franklin, assistant editor of The Jena Times, stated that the nooses were actually a prank by three students aimed at white members of the school rodeo team, and that the school's investigating committee had concluded that "the three young teens had no knowledge that nooses symbolize the terrible legacy of the lynchings of countless blacks in American history." The names of those who hung the nooses were not publicly disclosed.
The school disciplinary process that followed is unclear. It was reported that the principal learned that three white students were responsible and recommended expulsion, that the board of education overruled his recommendation, and that school superintendent Roy Breithaupt agreed with the overruling. It was initially reported that the punishment was reduced to three days of in-school suspension.  However, the three students were isolated at an alternative school "for about a month", spent two weeks on in-school suspension, served Saturday detentions, had to attend Discipline Court, were referred to Families in Need of Services, and had to have an evaluation before they were able to return to school as part of the district's Crisis Management Policy Procedures.
The school superintendent was quoted as saying, "Adolescents play pranks. I don't think it was a threat against anybody." Black residents of Jena have stated that this decision stoked racial tensions leading to subsequent events.
According to US Attorney Donald Washington, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigators found that the hanging of the nooses "had all the markings of a hate crime". However, it could not be prosecuted as such because it failed to meet federal standards for the teens to be certified as adults. La Salle Parish District Attorney J. Reed Walters stated that Washington had found no federal statute under which the teens could be prosecuted, just as he himself had found no applicable state statute. Walters opined: "The people that [hung the nooses] should be ashamed of what they unleashed on this town."
Police were called to the school in the days after the noose incident. The principal took action by calling an assembly on September 6, 2006. The Jena Police Department asked Walters to attend and speak at the assembly. Already pressed for time due to a case under preparation, Walters felt that the students were not paying proper attention to his message. Walters warned the students "I can be your best friend or your worst enemy. With the stroke of a pen I can make life miserable for you or ruin your life. So I want you to call me before you do something stupid." Though black students state Walters was looking at them when he made the comments, Walters and school board member Billy Fowler, also present, deny it. Walters said that he was irritated at "two or three girls, white girls, [who] were chit-chatting on their cellphones or playing with their cellphones".
On November 30, 2006, the main building of the high school was destroyed by arson. Although it would be many months before the perpetrators were known, the news media widely cited the fire as a racially charged event leading up to the assault on Barker. On December 28, 2007, LaSalle Parish Sheriff-elect Scott Franklin announced that an investigation had shown that the fire was set in an effort to destroy grade records in the building and to close the school for a time. Six racially diverse male suspects (three juveniles and three adults) had been arrested, and two more adult males were being sought. Franklin indicated that the fire was not racially motivated, and had no connection to the Jena Six. Two of the arson defendants pled guilty, and were sentenced to ten years in prison, with restitution ordered in the amount of $10 million. News reports from Jena have evoked the Civil Rights Movement, made references to lynching, or evoked Jim Crow. Some sources have pointed out inaccurate reporting by the media. The Associated Press published an article noting the various reporting errors that have been made, including whether the tree was a "white tree", the number of nooses, and the discipline meted out on the noose-hanging students. Based on this, MTV posted a retraction for incorrect information that it had reported on the case from other news sources.
Many major editorial pages and columnists have been sympathetic to the supporters of the Jena Six and have used the case to discuss broader trends of racism in the US criminal justice system and to call for a renewed civil rights movement. Most editorials were published around the time of the Jena rally. The New York Post, in a September 23, 2007 editorial, stated "it's impossible to examine the case of the so-called Jena Six without concluding that these black teens have been the victims of a miscarriage of justice, with a clearly racial double standard at work." Byron Williams, writing on the Huffington Post, was one of several to cite the Urban League's 2005 finding that the average black male convicted of aggravated assault serves 48 months in prison, one-third longer than a comparable white man. Their report also stated that a black male who is arrested is three times more likely to go to jail than a white male arrested for the same crime.    Citing the same statistics, syndicated columnist Clarence Page wrote that "The best legacy for the Jena March 6 would be a new movement, dedicated this time to the reduction and elimination of unequal justice wherever it appears. I don't care who leads it, but it shouldn't be for blacks only." Writing in the New York Times, Professor Orlando Patterson of Harvard University used the case to highlight the use of the prison system as a means of "controlling young black men", which is one factor in a broader "crisis in relations between men and women of all classes and, as a result, the catastrophic state of black family life".
Other columnists have argued that inaccuracies in the media coverage unfairly tarnish the town and have led to a national overreaction. Dallas Morning News columnist Heather MacDonald, while condemning the noose hangings as a "despicable provocation", expressed her view that "the media, the (race) advocates and pandering politicians have erupted in an outpouring of seeming joy at the alleged proof that America remains a racist country." In a column in the Kansas City Star, Jason Whitlock drew attention to what he called factual inaccuracies in reporting of the story. He focused on the piece circulated by Bean to news outlets, "Bean's story is framed—by his own admission—as an indictment of the criminal justice system and the people in power in Jena and, therefore, the story is unfairly biased." Craig Franklin, assistant editor of The Jena Times, who states that he is the only writer to have covered this story from its inception, wrote in The Christian Science Monitor "I have never before witnessed such a disgrace in professional journalism. Myths replaced facts ... the truth about Jena will eventually be known."
The case has elicited allegations that the charges against the Jena Six were disproportionate and racially motivated. Supporters of the Jena Six circulated online petitions, raised money for legal defense, and held a demonstration in Jena on September 20, 2007.
Rallies in support of the Jena Six and all blacks in the United States who have been unfairly treated by the justice system were held in Jena and elsewhere in the United States on September 20, 2007, the date upon which Bell was scheduled for sentencing. An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 demonstrators attended the rally that day, severely overtaxing the facilities of the small town. Protesters were bused in from as far away as Los Angeles and Washington DC. Because of the congestion on the roads leading to Jena, many protesters left their vehicles and continued into town on foot. Among those in attendance were civil rights activists Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Martin Luther King III, rappers Mos Def and Salt-n-Pepa. Rapper-actor Ice Cube attended and financially supported the rally. Darryl Hunt, an African-American who was wrongfully convicted of the rape and murder of a young white newspaper reporter in 1984, was scheduled to be a keynote speaker. The demonstrators were addressed by Darryl Matthews, General President of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, who stated "It is sobering to know that in 2007 Martin Luther King's dream of equal treatment, respect, fairness and opportunity is still not realized."
Multiple songs have been produced in response to the Jena Six case. John Mellencamp released a song and video called "Jena", with lyrics such as "Jena, take your nooses down" which gained considerable media attention, and which Mellencamp described as a "condemnation of racism." The video juxtaposes images of Jena, the high school, and the tree with video from the 1960s, including civil rights marchers and police beatings. Video of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King speaking and an image of a black man in shackles are also included in the video. The song and video led to Jena's mayor, Murphy R. McMillan, issuing a statement rebutting the accusations he believed were expressed and implied in the video. An episode of the Salt-N-Pepa Show on VH1 was filmed at the Jena rally. Bomani Armah released a song called "Jena 6".
Multiple online petitions have circulated calling for various actions in response to the Jena Six case. A petition created by online advocacy group Color of Change, which had previously advocated for victims of Hurricane Katrina, called for District Attorney Walters to drop all charges and for Governor Kathleen Blanco to investigate his conduct. Color of Change raised more than $212,000 for the Jena Six legal defense, largely through online donations.  While the NAACP provided a link to the fund through its website, initially, the donation link on the NAACP Jena Six support page steered potential donors to the generic NAACP donation page, with no way to designate funds for the Jena Six. Black bloggers objected, and several days later, the link was altered to reach the defense fund. The Southern Poverty Law Center represented Beard, hired local defense counsel to represent Bailey, and helped coordinate the overall defense strategy.
In the months following the Jena Six rally, controversy arose about accounting and dispersal of the legal defense funds. Questions about the money were first sparked by photos posted on Robert Bailey's former MySpace account, which show him with quantities of hundred dollar bills stuffed in his mouth. The controversy grew significantly when radio host Michael Baisden accused Color of Change of being "shady" with their use of the funds. Color of Change responded to the accusations by posting links to canceled checks on their web site. In his November 10 report, Chicago Tribune correspondent Howard Witt noted that Color of Change was the only national civil rights group to be fully transparent with their use of the funds. Witt also raised broader questions about the funds, which totaled more than half a million dollars, reporting that attorneys for Bell claimed that they have yet to receive any money from him, and that the families had refused to publicly account for the donations.
On September 22, 2007, the FBI opened an investigation of a white supremacist website that listed the addresses of five of the Jena Six and the telephone numbers of some of their families "in case anyone wants to deliver justice". According to an FBI spokeswoman, the website "essentially called for their lynching". Civil rights advocate Al Sharpton has stated that some of the families have continuously received threatening and harassing phone calls.
On September 25, 2007, Representative John Conyers, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, announced that he would hold congressional hearings on what he described as "the miscarriages of justice that have occurred in Jena, Louisiana," with the goal of pressuring the United States Department of Justice into taking action. The hearing took place on October 16, 2007; Washington and Sharpton, among others, testified. Walters was invited to testify but declined. Most Republican members of the committee declined to attend. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) exclaimed to Washington and other Justice Department officials, "Shame on you.... As a parent, I'm on the verge of tears," and demanded, "I want to know what you're going to do to get Mychal Bell out of jail!" US Attorney Washington responded that the federal government had a limited role to play in the matter.
Representative Lee and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus called upon outgoing Louisiana Governor Blanco to pardon the Jena Six on December 19, 2007, stating that "we believe Mychal Bell and the Jena 6 have paid a sufficient debt to society for any transgressions they may have committed." Blanco's office responded that she cannot grant pardons without a recommendation from the state Pardon Board, and no meeting of that body was scheduled during her remaining term of office. Walters commented that Lee's "passion for racial equality is admirable, but her grasp of the facts is not." He indicated that the attack on Barker was not just a schoolyard fight "but rather an unprovoked, unforeseen assault on a young man who had nothing to do with the hanging of the nooses." Governor Blanco's term of office ended without any pardons being granted.
On July 31, 2007, the school had the tree cut down. School Board member Fowler said, "There's nothing positive about that old tree. It's all negative. And I'm serving on the new School Board, and we're wanting to start fresh on some things." According to Fowler, the tree would have had to have been cut down to make way for the rebuilding of the school after the fire. Others felt that cutting down the tree was not an effective way to address any problems of racism in Jena. "Cutting down that beautiful tree won't solve the problem at hand," said Caseptla Bailey, Robert Bailey's mother. "It still happened." The remains of the building have been cleared, and a bid accepted for the reconstruction.
Jones and Purvis attended the BET Hip Hop Awards in Atlanta on October 13, 2007 and presented the award for Video of the Year. When the two defendants came out on stage, they were greeted by a standing ovation. Emcee Katt Williams joked, "They don't look so tough, do they?" The two members delivered speeches thanking family, friends, the "Hip-Hop Nation", and those who came to Jena.
Justin Barker and his parents filed suit on November 29, 2007 against the parents of those accused of beating him, the adult members of the Jena Six (as of the time of the attack), an additional student named Malcolm Shaw and the LaSalle Parish School Board. Barker's medical bills from his emergency room visit totaled more than $5,000. The lawsuit alleges that the LaSalle Parish School Board inadequately supervised students and failed to maintain discipline. The Barkers also allege that the school board did not implement a plan to "discourage the dangerous activity of threatening and attacking other students while in possession of actual knowledge of said threats and prior attacks while the students are on school grounds". The case was on hold pending resolution of the criminal cases, but when the Barkers' attorney learned that Jesse Ray Beard was using defense funds (which might be garnished) to pay for private school, he decided to push ahead with the case. However, following a motion by Bell's civil attorney to recuse Mauffray in the civil case, proceedings were again put on hold pending appointment of a judge to hear that recusal motion. Mauffray subsequently retired, and on March 16, 2009, Judge Ronald Lewellyan was assigned to hear the case. On June 26, 2009, Judge Lewellyan approved a settlement of Barker's claims against the Jena Six, though the claim against the school board remained pending.
In February 2007, Jesse Ray Beard was accused, and subsequently convicted and sentenced for simple battery, simple criminal damage to property less than $500 and simple assault. He received a suspended sentence of incarceration, and was placed on house arrest. On July 9, 2008, Beard, by then aged 17, was released from house arrest so that he could attend a summer program and football camp in New York State. It was revealed at a hearing on that date that Beard had been recommended for expulsion for thirteen disciplinary actions, but that the recommendation had been overturned. In New York, he stayed with a local attorney and worked as an intern in the attorney's office, while taking summer courses to prepare him for junior year. He was required to return to Jena by August 11. However, on August 6, Yeager terminated Beard's probation (he remains under the conditions of his bail release in the Barker incident) so he could attend the Canterbury School in Connecticut. Half of the $39,900 annual tuition was paid for with Jena Six defense fund money.
Bryant Purvis, aged 19, was arrested on February 7, 2008 for an assault causing bodily injury on a fellow high school student in Texas, where he now resides. Purvis was placed on probation for a year and required to do community service for the offense. He enrolled at Ranger College, a junior college, attending on a basketball scholarship.
Corwin Jones, by then aged 19, was arrested on May 10, 2008 in LaSalle Parish on a charge of misdemeanor simple battery, stemming from an incident three days earlier in which the Sheriff's Department alleges that Jones struck a man from behind as several people, including Jones, came towards the man and his friends, with Jones' companions carrying baseball bats. Jones denied fault, stating that the incident was caused by a fight the previous day in which Jones states he was not involved, that he had been harassed and intimidated, and "that the incident that day 'struck a nerve and I reacted'." Jones had previously been arrested on January 24, 2008 on a trespass-related charge. According to his father, Jones received his diploma from Jena High School because he had completed his school work before his arrest, and moved out of Jena, working in a hotel.
Also on May 10, Mychal Bell was stopped in Olla, Louisiana for speeding and not having proper vehicle insurance while on a weekend pass from his sentence. Bell was not supposed to leave Monroe, Louisiana during the pass. The vehicle was towed due to the lack of insurance. In an interview televised on CNN on August 24, 2008, Bell admitted to striking Barker and called Jena "a real racist town". On August 27, 2008, the Louisiana High School Athletic Association turned down Bell's request for an extra year of athletic eligibility. Marcus Jones, Bell's father, blamed Bell's attorney at the time of the plea agreement for the denial. "If it weren't for his attorney, Mychal would be able to play football," Jones said. "They coerced him into taking that plea agreement. If he wouldn't have taken that plea, he wouldn't be in the position he's in now." After the hearing, Jones allegedly spat in the face of his son's attorney, Carol Powell-Lexing, and supposedly also pushed her to the floor. Jones denied assaulting Powell-Lexing, stating he would never get into a physical fight with a woman. Jones was charged with assault. Despite the alleged assault, Powell-Lexing continued as part of Bell's defense team.
On December 24, 2008, Bell was arrested and charged with shoplifting, resisting arrest, and simple assault. According to police, Bell was caught as he and another male attempted to steal $370 worth of clothing from Dillard's department store. While being arrested, he reportedly fought back against a security guard and off-duty police officer. He was released on $1,300 bond. On December 29, 2008, Bell shot himself in the chest with a .22-caliber pistol in a failed attempt to take his own life, stating to police that he was tired of all the media attention. Since the hospital in Monroe was unable to stop his internal bleeding, Bell was transferred to a hospital in Shreveport for specialist care. Powell-Lexing denied that Bell had tried to kill himself, saying that the gun went off while Bell was attempting to clean it. On January 15, 2009, CNN featured an interview with Bell in which he indicated that he obtained a gun out of despair following the shoplifting arrest, initially tried to shoot himself in the head, but the gun misfired, and that he then shot himself in the chest. Bell stated that he is back in school and still hopes to receive a college football scholarship. As these were Bell's first charges as an adult, he was eligible for a diversion program; the charges were dismissed in early 2010. Bell enrolled at Southern University in 2009.
On May 22, 2010, Mychal Bell was arrested and charged with simple battery after an incident at a Jena barber shop. According to the arresting officers, after being read his Miranda rights, Bell informed them that he attacked the man for "running his mouth". Bell said he punched the victim in the face, put him in a headlock and rammed his head into a table.
Robert Bailey attended high school at Shaw High School in Columbus, Georgia, where he was granted an extra year's eligibility to play football.  Theo Shaw was able to attend classes at another high school and have his credits transferred to Jena, receiving a Jena High School diploma although he participated in a graduation ceremony at the other school.