Will the Jena Six Spark a New Movement?

The case of the Jena Six has mobilized civil rights icons like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, and prompted protests across the country. Historian Tim Tyson considers whether the outcry will lead to America's next great civil rights movement.

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LUKE BURBANK, host:

Well, following up on a conversation that we had yesterday about Jena, Louisiana - Jena, of course, the town that has become famous for a series of racially charged incidents that went down there late last month.

Thousands of people showed up to march in support of six young black men who are in trouble for getting in a fight with a white kid. The march was billed as a kind of seminal civil rights moment for lots of young African-Americans who actually went to Jena or read about it on the Internet. But we're wondering if, in fact, it was that. I mean, where does Jena fit in with the Selma's and the Mobile's of the world?

Tim Tyson is a civil rights historian and senior research scholar for the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. He also teaches courses in African-American studies.

Hi, Tim.

Dr. TIMOTHY TYSON (Senior Scholar, Center for Documentary Studies, Duke University): Good morning.

BURBANK: So what exactly was Jena supposed to do, at least in the minds of the people that were on their way and reading about it on places like Facebook and MySpace?

Dr. TYSON: Well, Facebook and MySpace may be new, but the phenomenon of people organizing around incidents like Jena is not new. You know, the civil rights movement took place in every crossroads in every corner of this country, and it took place whether the television cameras are going on there or not.

And what we think of as the civil rights movement, you know, that starts in Montgomery, the student sit in movement and the Freedom Rides in Albany, in Birmingham, and Freedom Summer in Mississippi, in Selma. Those are sort of - that's when The New York Times gets there. You know, that's not necessary the movement. Those are staging grounds for the movement, and we engage in a kind of - in these campaigns that are sort of symbolic politics, ways of speaking to the rest of the nation.

BURBANK: Well, that may be the media's approach in some things in the past, but in terms of this event at Jena, is it fair to say that for a lot of younger African-American people this was seen as a big civil rights moment?

Dr. TYSON: Well, it's yet to be seen, really, what this amounts to. You know, we had these media events and - you know, but movements and media events are -we blur them in our minds, but they're not the same thing. Movements take, you know, the patient labors of thousands of people who don't become famous and aren't on TV. But, you know, media moments sort of come and go, and what they amount to really depends on what people will do with them.

BURBANK: So you're saying it's less important if the media brands it a success or not in terms of Jena, Louisiana, but rather what actually goes on there.

Dr. TYSON: Well, the media, you know, can be a very important part of the success of something, but whether or not the networks that stay together, you know - we're actually sort of in a new moment of organizing. You mentioned Facebook. You know, they didn't have Facebook in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, you know? They didn't have e-mail during the sit-in movement that spread across the South in 1960 among the college students. I think, you know, this may well be a movement moment, but it's - the media won't necessarily determine that. It's a big part of it, and always was.

BURBANK: Well, two of the more sort of well-known people who showed up there were the Reverend Al Sharpton and the Reverend Jesse Jackson. And first, let's just hear a little clip from what Al Sharpton had to say when he was in Jena.

Reverend AL SHARPTON (Minister, American Baptist; Civil Rights Activist): Martin Luther King, Jr. and others faced Jim Crow. We come to Jena to face James Crow, Jr., Esquire.

(Soundbite of cheering)

BURBANK: I guess what I'm wondering is - I would say that - my read on it, anyway is that Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are fairly polarizing guys, even within the African-American community. And now we look back and we sort of venerate Martin Luther King, Jr. Is there somebody waiting in the wings who's not Al Sharpton, who's not Jesse Jackson who could kind of, you know, help this civil rights movement kind of crystallize? Is there a leader out there that, like, we haven't heard about?

Dr. TYSON: Well, there was such a leader. He was 26 years old. His name was Martin Luther King. He was completely unheard of, a really obscure local, black Baptist minister in Montgomery. And the Montgomery Bus Boycott had been decades in the making, of people who organized the movement. There's always somebody who can make a speech, you know. And we have so little understanding of social movements that we think Martin Luther King made a beautiful speech and then the walls came a-tumbling down, and that's just far from the case.

And that, you know, I would say whoever the media lift - it's a combination of the movement lifting up. You know, Martin Luther King did not make the movement in any way. The movement made Martin Luther King, and the media picked up on him and created him. But they were - the movement was really made by, you know, thousands of other people who don't get famous and…

BURBANK: Well, what if there is…

Dr. TYSON: …and then they made him famous. So to think of - to try to say, well, who's our Martin Luther King, it serves to disparage ourselves, in a way.

BURBANK: But doesn't the movement, I mean, whether the movement creates the person or not, isn't it somewhat important for that person to exist, even if it's just for the media to fixate on? To kind of, you know, be a center to this kind of snowball?

Dr. TYSON: Well, when you depend on one symbolic leader and that person is assassinated, that's a problem. Or when that person turns out to be flawed and imperfect, as always happens, since we're all flawed and imperfect. So I think it's - there are a lot of risks involved with sort of attaching your star to one person like that. And it's not, you know, I don't think it's all that important. I think the movement always - the movement always produces such figures, and the media is looking for it because they're looking for a simple language to talk about something.

They want a, you know, a little old lady with tired feet on the bus to create a kind of heroic image of one person, you know, as if there's something magical about it. They don't want to know that she's been an organizer, a trained political organizer for 20 years, that she has created these networks of African-American women in Alabama and across the South that spring into action…

BURBANK: Yeah.

Dr. TYSON: …in the case of Montgomery…

BURBANK: I'm presuming your talking about…

Dr. TYSON: …and have been - yes, that's right.

BURBANK: I assume you're talking about Rosa Parks. I'm just going to…

Dr. TYSON: Correct.

BURBANK: …just jump right out there and say that.

Listen, Tim, we're running short on time, but we appreciate you coming on. Tim Tyson, civil rights historian, senior research scholar for the Center For Documentary Studies at Duke University. Thanks again for coming on.

Dr. TYSON: Well, thanks for having me. Morning.

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