Businesses and schools were shut down as demonstrators by the thousands poured into Jena, reports CBS News national correspondent Byron Pitts. Many drove day and night on buses from across the country: A caravan from Los Angeles, activists from Detroit, college kids from Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Houston, Atlanta and cities in between.
The mayor declared a state of emergency just so his city can qualify for the kinds of state resources he'll need to manage an event like this, adds Pitts.
The crowd broke into chants of "Free the Jena Six" as the Rev. Al Sharpton arrived at the local courthouse with family members of the arrested teens.
Martin Luther King III, son of the slain civil rights leader, said the scene was reminiscent of earlier civil rights struggles. He said punishment of some sort may be in order for the six defendants, but "the justice system isn't applied the same to all crimes and all people."
President Bush told reporters at the White House today that the events in Jena have "saddened" him. He says he can "understand the emotions."
The six teens were charged amid racial tensions that had been growing after the local prosecutor declined to charge three white teens who hung nooses in a tree on their high school grounds. Five of the black teens were initially charged with attempted murder in the December beating, but that charge was reduced to battery for all but one, who has yet to be arraigned; the sixth was charged as a juvenile.
"This is the most blatant example of disparity in the justice system that we've seen," Sharpton told The Early Show before arriving in Jena. "You can't have two standards of justice."
"We didn't bring race into it," he said. "Those that hung the nooses brought the race into it."
Sharpton, who helped organized the rally, said this could be the beginning of the 21st century's civil rights movement, one that would challenge disparities in the justice system.
Reed Walters, the district attorney who is prosecuting the teens, denied on Wednesday that racism was involved in the charges.
He said he didn't charge the white students accused of hanging the nooses because he could find no Louisiana law under which they could be charged. In the beating case, he said, four of the defendants were of adult age under Louisiana law and the only juvenile charged as an adult, Mychal Bell, had a prior criminal record.
"It is not, and never has been, about race," Walters said. "It is about finding justice for an innocent victim and holding people accountable for their actions."
The beating victim, Justin Barker, was knocked unconscious, his face badly swollen and bloodied, though he was able to attend a school function later that night.
Bell, 16 at the time of the attack, is the only one of the "Jena Six" to be tried so far. He was convicted on an aggravated second-degree battery count that could have sent him to prison for 15 years, but the conviction was overturned last week when a state appeals court said he should not have been tried as an adult.
Thursday's protest had been planned to coincide with Bell's sentencing, but organizers decided to press ahead even after the conviction was thrown out. Bell remains jailed while prosecutors prepare an appeal. He has been unable to meet the $90,000 bond.
"We all have family members about the age of these guys. We said it could have been one of them. We wanted to try to do something," said Angela Merrick, 36, who drove with three friends from Atlanta to protest the treatment of the teens.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke to a crowd Thursday morning. Dennis Courtland Hayes, interim president and CEO of the NAACP, compared the outcry over the Jena arrests to the controversy that followed racial remarks by radio personality Don Imus.
"People are saying, 'That's enough, and we're not taking it any more,' " Hayes said.