Thursday's march was expected to draw thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of people, dwarfing Jena's population of about 3,500. Black participants said they hoped to rekindle the spirit of the civil rights movement.
"This is the first time I've done anything like this, on this magnitude at least," said Nathaniel Ford, 47, a computer technician who traveled from Richmond, Va.
Ford said he remembers his parents' stories of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. "I hope this is the beginning and not a one-time situation."
Students from schools across the country - including historically black colleges like Morehouse College, Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University, Howard University, Hampton University and Southern University - were en route to Jena on Wednesday. The case has resonated with young people, said Jeff Johnson, an activist and organizer who is covering the Jena rally for Black Entertainment Television.
"It does not happen often, where there's something that catches fire and really creates a mass movement of students," Johnson said as he boarded a Louisiana-bound plane in Atlanta.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson likened the gathering protest to historic events in Montgomery and Selma, Ala., and Little Rock, Ark.
But for many residents of this predominantly white town, Thursday's march is a bitter pill - the result, they said, of overblown and unfair media coverage. Most wouldn't comment and those who did were visibly irritated or angry.
"This isn't a racist town. It never has been. We didn't even have fist fights when the schools were integrated," said a white man who refused to give his name or comment further.
"Not no, but hell no," another man said angrily when asked to comment.
Still, town and state officials said this week they wanted the demonstrators to be welcome and comfortable and the resistance demonstrators met in the '50s and '60s was nowhere evident. State transportation workers were installing flashing message signs on the town streets that would aid with traffic and state police said portable toilets would be placed along the route.