Martin Luther King and the Jena Six

Dr. King giving his I Have A Dream speechToday is Martin Luther King Day. To honor the work that Dr. King and so many others have given their lives for, I would like to talk about the Jena Six.

This is an on-going story of racial tension in Jena, Louisiana. The short version that has received national attention began with black students asking permission to sit under a particular tree at the local high school. White students hung nooses from the tree. Black students beat up white students. The black students were arrested and charged, many say excessively. You can read the whole story on Wikipedia.

This little snip-it of a story is not, of course, isolated. For whatever reason, this part of the story has grabbed national attention, but actually exists within a complex web of racism among adults and teenagers in Jena. However, it is the teenagers who brought this undercurrent of local racism to the extreme.

Teenagers are in a place of developing who they are and what they believe. As they work to understand the morals of those around them, and how they relate to their own morals, teenagers often feel and express extreme passion. The teenagers’ actions in Jena, Louisiana typify how this deep passion and commitment can go terribly array if it is not respected and directed by a moral upbringing and by caring, present adults.

(I speak, of course, about the actions of all of the Jena teenagers who have been in the national news, not of those of one race or the other. The beatings and the nooses were both devastating, as I am sure were many smaller, less well-known actions from both sides.)

Many adults are not sure how to guide teenagers towards appropriate actions. Teenagers’ fierceness and passion can sometimes overwhelm the slower, more thoughtful process that adults tend to favor. Dr. King’s message is one way to talk with teenagers about appropriate actions in the face of the truly inappropriate.

Dr. King’s message was one of peace and love. His commitment to taking only appropriate actions while fighting the inappropriateness of others is astounding and has the potential to be deeply meaningful to teenagers.

Teenagers can have the tendency to get very, deeply upset about injustice. This is right, and as it should be. We should all be very, deeply upset about injustice. Nevertheless, teenagers need to be taught that one’s own conduct must continue to be just in the face of injustice. Saying something like this has the potential to be of great value:

In the fight for right, you must always be sure to be on the right side yourself. Others can and will learn more from you when you live and demonstrate the values you preach.

Teenagers can hear this message, and can lean to respond to injustice with dramatic acts of justice rather than dramatic acts of injustice.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. Karen, this is a very good post. You’ve addressed before the devastating consequences teens can face due to their actions, in our world where the “justice system” has spun out of control.

    I bring your attention to the situation here in Colorado:

    This article points out an unconscionable situation, where people can be charged with murder if they participate in any way in a crime in which someone is killed.

    Erik was friends with Nathan; Nathan had suffered years of emotional, physical and sexual abuse at the hands of his parents. Erik’s parents (and others) had called social services time and again to get some help for Nathan; that help did not come.

    Erik was 17 when he walked in on Nathan killing his mother. Erik helped Nathan clean up the crime scene. Erik is now in prison with no opportunity for parole. He was charged with murder even though he had not encouraged, planned or helped Nathan kill his mother. (Nathan is also in prison with no change of parole.)

    In the words of Michael Moore, in his film Sicko, “What is wrong with us?”

  2. Excellent points. I think that, in the struggle against injustice, adults and adolescents can greatly benefit from more contact and joint action. Adolescents can gain from some additional guidance, but adults often desperately need a jolt of passion to get them to move forward. I am often discouraged by my peer’s (and my own) willingness, in the face of gross injustice, to grimace, wring their hands, consider and contemplate, but in the end, shrug and move on.

  3. […] I be both moral and liberal? Can you? In my post on Monday, I wrote about teenagers and racial […]

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