JENA, La. -- They called it the White Tree. Not because of the color of its leaves or tint of its bark, but because of the kind of people who typically sat beneath its shade here at Jena High School.
And when a black student tried to defy that tradition by sitting under the tree last September, it set off a series of events that have turned this town of 3,000 in central Louisiana's timber country into a flashpoint over the issue of racial bias in the criminal justice system.
Three nooses quickly appeared on the tree a day after the black student sat under it, and not long afterward, the authorities said a white student had been beaten by six black schoolmates. The white student was treated at a local hospital and released; the black students were charged, not with assault, but with attempted murder.
Local civil rights groups objected to what they saw as a throwback to the worst kind of Deep South justice, and that protest has escalated into a nationwide campaign, through Web sites, bulk e-mail and instant messages, black radio stations and YouTube. The effort will reach its peak on Thursday, when thousands are expected to demonstrate here against what they say is the unfair treatment of the black students, who have come to be known as the Jena Six.
Lawyers involved in the case say the attention that the teenagers have received has prompted prosecutors to reduce some of the charges against the youths. And last Friday, an appeals court tossed out the conviction of the only student who has been tried in the case.
Even as Jena (pronounced GEE-nuh) girds itself for Thursday's demonstration, the town -- which has already undergone a measure of soul-searching since the case began -- finds itself divided sharply over precisely what the case says about their town and themselves.
"Every year at Jena High School there's a black-and-white fight," said Casa Compton, 26, a Jena native, who is black. "It's always been tense. There's always been prejudice and bigotry here. Every day they're throwing away a black man's life down here."
But Tina Norris, 45, owner of the Café Martin restaurant, said she was amazed at the kind of publicity her town was now receiving.
"They make it sound like the whole town of Jena is just one big K.K.K. rally," said Ms. Norris, who is white. "It isn't. We don't have a lot of problems here. This is just a small town."
Critics of how the case has been handled argue that the treatment of the black students is evidence of the persistence of corrosive attitudes about race and crime.
"I think a lot of people recognize that the criminal justice system grinds down people of color every day," said J. Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the civil rights group based in Montgomery, Ala. "Oftentimes, it's nameless, it's faceless. We know the story in a generic way but not specifically. People see Jena as the tip of the iceberg and ask, 'What lies beneath?' "
The legal case began on Dec. 4, when the authorities said that the black youths -- Robert Bailey Jr., 17; Jesse Beard, 15; Mychal Bell, 17; Carwin Jones, 18; Bryant Purvis, 17; and Theo Shaw, 17 -- beat a white classmate in a confrontation outside the school gymnasium. The charges of attempted murder have been scaled back to offenses like aggravated battery and conspiracy, of which Mr. Bell was convicted on June 28.
Last Friday, an appeals court found that Mr. Bell had been improperly tried in adult court on the battery charge and threw out that conviction. Another judge tossed out the conspiracy conviction earlier this month. School officials cut down the tree.
Reed Walters, the district attorney of LaSalle Parish, did not respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Bell is still being held in jail while prosecutors deliberate whether to file new charges against him in juvenile court. The case of Mr. Bell -- the only one of the six who has been jailed since the fight in December -- has struck a chord among many who have followed the case.
"In Jena, for those who have been under the illusion that changes have occurred, this is a wake-up call," the Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder of Operation PUSH/Rainbow Coalition and an organizer of Thursday's rally, said in a phone interview, comparing the case to seminal moments like the Montgomery bus boycott that began in 1955.
College students have been a driving force in promoting the Jena case, and some of those who study race relations say that it has galvanized a generation that is often criticized by veterans of the social activist movement as being too complacent.
"What my students say is, 'It could be any one of us that could be in this predicament,' " said Jas Sullivan, a political scientist at Louisiana State University. "What I see in their eyes is that this could happen to them."
But even here in Jena, there is a sense of perspective and nuance about the case that is often lost in the larger debate. There are white people, too, who say the teenagers should have been tried in juvenile court, and many blacks who insist that the teenagers should be punished if they committed a crime, though in juvenile court.
On Tuesday, Mr. Bell's parents, Marcus Jones and Melissa Bell, and the mother of Mr. Purvis, Tina Jones, were approached by the Rev. P. A. Paul, 78, who is white and said he was a minister at a local Baptist church. A shouting match ensued when he dismissed the hanging of nooses as "kid's play."
"I've hung nooses around my neck as a child," he said.
"Well, you didn't pull it tight enough," Ms. Jones shot back.
After the two sides were separated, Mr. Bell's parents said their son was hoping to be freed from jail soon and resume a high school football career.
"But when he gets out, we're moving out of Jena," Ms. Bell said.
For more on the Sept. 20 Jena 6 Demonstartion, and Rally visit www.minglecity.com/jenasix
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