Case Divides La. Town Along Racial Lines

dow story, Af-Amer. football player
The trouble in Jena, La., started under a schoolyard oak tree, reports CBS News correspondent Harold Dow.

"Things started happening with the nooses at the high school," said Billey Fowler, a member of Jena's school board.

"Nooses that be hung in the tree mean that somebody is fix'n to die," said Marcus Jones, who is the father of one of the students who is accused.

One morning last fall, students arriving at Jena High found nooses hanging from the tree. The three white students who admitted doing it were suspended for three days. The school superintendent said it was just a prank. That upset the town's African-American community.

"So it was a joke to them, but it wasn't to us, because we know what that meant - so many of our people was hung in the past, and that's no joking matter," said Jones.

"That's a racial slur against us," said one town resident.

Things in this central Louisiana town of 3,500 quickly unraveled. Fights between blacks and whites broke out, and someone burned down a wing of the school.

And then, last December, six black students allegedly punched and kicked Justin Barker, who was bruised, but not seriously injured. Witnesses alleged Barker had taunted the black students with racial slurs.

District Attorney Reed Walters, who declined an interview, charged the black students with attempted murder and conspiracy. The student's alleged lethal weapon: their tennis shoes.

"They are not murderers," said John Jenkins, the father of an accused student. "They didn't attempt to kill anyone, you know it was just a school fight."

The first of six to go on trial was Mychal Bell, 17, an all-state football player with good grades and a promising future.

On June 28, Bell was found guilty by an all white jury of aggravated second degree battery and guilty of conspiracy to commit the same.

It was evident there's never going to be a fair trial for any African American person.

Civil rights groups held rallies and raised money for a legal defense fund. And Jena found itself in the eye of a racial storm.

"I think our entire community feels badly about this. We don't know what to do," said Fowler.

And newly-elected school board member Billy Fowler admits mistakes were made. "I just wish we that we could go back and wave a magic wand and re-do this, but we can't do that."

But late yesterday, a Louisiana appeals court overturned Mychal Bell's conviction, saying the teen should not have been tried as an adult.

The prosecutor says he will appeal and is expected to continue pressing charges against all six black students.

Meanwhile, national civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, are calling for a massive rally in Jena next week in support of the teens.

The oak tree is gone now, cut down by a town that is trying to erase its image as a symbol of racial hatred.