Identity Politics in Jena, Louisiana

JENA, La. -- Main Street buzz has turned from racial politics to presidential politics in the year since the "Jena Six" legal battles and civil rights protests.

Residents gathered outside the La Salle Parish courthouse in Jena, La., on Sept. 11 to reflect on community values and how the presidential election might play here, a parish of about 14,000 residents, heavily invested in oil, timber and conservative values.

A year ago Saturday about 20,000 civil rights demonstrators protested a perception of legal injustice and racial prejudice at the same courthouse. But on Sept. 11, as townspeople, the school band, elected officials and the National Guard came together, the focus was patriotism and politics, said Sammy Franklin, long-time editor and publisher of the Jena Times.

"These people here are very patriotic," Franklin said, noting that many are veterans.

"You have a war veteran, a former POW, here, and then you have a candidate here that will not salute the flag, not wear a flag pin," said Franklin, referring to presidential candidates Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama. "I've heard some diehard Democrats, that would never (not) vote for a Democrat before say, 'No, I can't do that this time.' … Because of just that one thing."

Franklin predicted La Salle Parish would go Republican on Nov. 4, and recent history backs him up. La Salle gave President Bush more than 80% of its vote in 2004 — and 75% in 2000.

Identity influences politics

Cleveland Riser Jr., a retired educator who invested 29 years in the local school system, said he sees identity as a pressure point this year. The parish is 85.6% white and 12% black.

"Can they overcome the fact that when they see him they are going to see a darker face?" asked Riser, a black man with Native American and white heritage.

Riser, who supports Obama, said he believes race will factor into voters' decisions but that it was not the most important issue to him.

Age made more of a difference. Riser, a veteran, admires McCain's military service but thinks a 72-year-old candidate lacks the energy for the job. Instead, he was inspired by the vivacity and enthusiasm of Obama, 47.

"When he stepped in with his ability to generate concern and know-how, people bought into it," Riser said. "He has the attention and ear, as well as the pulse, of many Americans who … want to be involved, who want to be a part of the truly American way."

But Catherine Roberts, a Republican party organizer since the mid-1960s, doesn't believe age should be a factor.

"Seventy-year-old people aren't necessarily stupid," she said laughingly while standing in her floral shop. "Most of them still have a good mind."

She supports McCain — and has promised to help make 4,000 Election Day phone calls on his behalf — but said his running mate Gov. Sarah Palin has really shaken up the race.

"I think that as far as this presidential election, Gov. Palin has done the Republican Party a lot of good. She has put some excitement into the whole thing," she said, surmising that her gender could draw women to the ticket.

"A lot of the women will be interested in Palin because they are wanting a woman to get there," she said.

Gerald Mitchell, who serves food at the Brisket House, said Palin shifted his views on female politicians.

"I always said I didn't think it was a woman's place to be in the White House; I thought that was a man's place and a man's job, up until her," he said.

The Rev. Jimmy Young, pastor of L&A Baptist Church, said he thinks gender and race will be a factor in La Salle Parish but cited a recent interfaith revival as one gathering that may have opened others' minds. Young said the nine-week event, begun in February, was the largest revival he had seen or heard of in Jena.

"When we were under the tent, I mentioned the fact that we are not but one race of people," he said. "As long as we know that we are humans, brothers and sisters, under the blood of Jesus Christ, it makes no difference."

Young, a Jena native who spent the last four decades in Detroit, sees the election this way: Whatever side wins, history will be made because a black man will be president or a woman will be vice president.

The historical significance of this election also struck undecided voter Evelyn Talley, who owns and operates the Jena Java coffeehouse.

"I was so happy about Obama because it proved exactly what I said was correct," she said. "People have moved beyond the bigotry and hatred of my day and age."

Life experience matters

Palin's views on gun rights and abortion got his attention at first, Mitchell said, but it was her life story that compelled him to support her.

"(If) you can take five children, raise a family and do all that she's done and still maintain your sense, you're doing all right," he said.

Ben Rabel, who operates JJ's Fish House on the edge of town, agreed, pointing out that Americans can relate to Palin.

"She comes from an imperfect family," he said. "She lives to the same standards as we live, and people want someone we can relate to, not somebody up on a pedestal but somebody down-home."

Talley, who volunteers with the Federation of Republican Women but has not made up her mind, also will look at the candidates' accomplishments as she decides. She sees McCain's experience as an advantage and worries about Obama's relatively short political career.

"The most meaningful thing is the war and how we get out of that, and the economy," she said. "And I don't want the government spending money they don't have."

She called McCain "an honorable, honorable man" and believes he will make the right decisions about the war in Iraq. Still, she's just not sure about his vice presidential pick.

"McCain threw me a ringer with Sarah from Alaska," she said. "A 44-year-old woman, if he dies, is president of the United States? That, I don't know."