JENA, La. It had many of the signs of the early civil rights protests militant slogans, upraised clenched fists and multitudes of police but none of the hate and fear-drenched campaigns in Selma, Little Rock and Montgomery.
Thousands of protesters descended on this tiny central Louisiana town yesterday, rallying against what they see as a double standard of justice for blacks and whites.
But unlike the protests that became landmarks for civil rights when fire hoses and police dogs greeted demonstrators, the rally to support six black teenagers charged in a school fight had a festive, laid-back air.
"It was a great day," said Denise Broussard, of Lafayette, La. "I really felt a sense of purpose and commitment, but it was also a lot of fun. I met great people and made some good friends."
The plight of the so-called Jena Six, a group of black teens initially charged with attempted murder in the beating of a white classmate, became a flashpoint for one of the biggest civil rights demonstrations in years.
Old-guard lions like the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton joined scores of college students bused in from across the nation who said they wanted to make a stand for racial equality just as their parents did in the 1950s and '60s.
But while those early protesters dodged police batons and were insulted by the white population, demonstrators yesterday petted police horses, chatted with officers and posed by the Jena Police Department sign.
"It was a big event for us," said Donna Clark, who traveled from Atlanta with her husband and four young daughters. "We got matching T-shirts and drove all night. It's exciting and I think the girls can say later they were part of history."
People began gathering before dawn; state police put attendance between 15,000 and 20,000, though organizers said the crowd was much larger.
Law enforcement officials said the biggest problem was the heat.
"It's been a very peaceful and happy crowd," said Sgt. Julie Lewis of the Louisiana State Police. "Really these are very, very nice people. They are welcome in Louisiana any time."
The only strident note came at the end of the rally when a group of Black Panthers took the microphone and led the crowd in chants.
"We're nonviolent when people are nonviolent with us," one speaker said. "We're not nonviolent with people that are violent with us."
Jena residents, resentful of the massive protest in their little town and the racist label stamped upon them, were scarce during the demonstrations. Businesses closed, and so did the library, schools, city offices and the courthouse.
"I don't mind them demonstrating," said resident Ricky Coleman, 46, who is white. "I believe in people standing up for what they think is right. But this isn't a racist town. It's a small place and we all get along."
The cause of yesterday's demonstrations dates to August 2006, when a black Jena High School student asked the principal whether blacks could sit under a shade tree that was a frequent gathering place for whites. He was told yes. But nooses appeared in the tree the next day. Three white students were suspended but not criminally prosecuted. LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters said this week he could find no state law covering the act.
The incident was followed by fights between blacks and whites, and in December a white student, Justin Barker, was knocked unconscious on school grounds. According to court testimony, his face was swollen and bloodied, but he was able to attend a school function that night.
Six black teens were arrested. Five were originally charged with attempted second-degree murder charges that have since been reduced for four of them. The sixth was booked as a juvenile on sealed charges.
Martin Luther King III, son of the slain civil rights leader, 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."
In Washington, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee said he would hold hearings on the case, though he did not set a date or say if the prosecutor would be called to testify.
Walters, the district attorney, has usually declined to discuss the case publicly. But on the eve of the demonstrations, he denied the charges against the teens were race-related and lamented that Barker, the victim of the beating, has been reduced to "a footnote" while protesters generate sympathy for his alleged attackers.
President Bush said he understood the emotions and the FBI was monitoring the situation.
"The events in Louisiana have saddened me," the president told reporters at the White House. "All of us in America want there to be, you know, fairness when it comes to justice."
Mychal Bell, now 17, is the only one of the defendants to be tried. He was convicted of aggravated second-degree battery, but his conviction was tossed out last week by a state appeals court that said Bell, who was 16 at the time of the beating, could not be tried as an adult on that charge.
Bell had been arrested on juvenile charges including battery and criminal damage to property, and was on probation at the time Barker was beaten. He remained in jail pending an appeal by prosecutors. The other five defendants are free on bond.
During the protest, the Louisiana 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Lake Charles ordered a bond hearing for Bell within 72 hours, defense attorney Bob Noel said.
In addition, the state district court in Jena scheduled a hearing today to decide whether the judge who has been hearing the case should be made to step aside from the bond hearing.
If Judge Tom Yeager decides Judge J.P. Mauffray should not preside over Bell's bond hearing, Yeager would hear it.
Alecea Rush, 21, a senior at Prairie View A&M University in Texas, said her grandmother used to tell her stories about the civil rights movement, including one in which she witnessed a lynching in Oklahoma City.
"I thought about every one of those stories being out here today," Rush said. "I never really felt the significance until today."