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Voices from Jena: African-American Educator from Jena Accuses DA of Conflict of Interest in Handling of Jena Six Case

StorySeptember 19, 2007
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Former Assistant School Superintendent Cleveland Riser says local District Attorney Reed Walters should have recused himself from the Jena Six case because he also serves as the attorney for the local school board. When the school board was asked to review the expulsion of the six students, Walters prevented them from reviewing an internal school district investigation. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Memories of segregation are still fresh in the minds of an older generation of Jena’s African-American residents. For them, the current racial tensions are inseparable from the past.

Cleveland Riser Jr., 74-year-old former assistant superintendent of schools in La Salle Parish, he retired in 1985, lives on a street named after him in the all-black community of Goodpine that neighbors Jena.

CLEVELAND RISER JR.: I have to go back to 1969 to really talk about the system, and that was — the reason why I say that is because in 1969 I was the principal of the formerly all-black school here, when the total school integration took place. The school is right down here at the end of the street. And during that switchover, changeover, the thought of most people was, one, they closed our school, which was black, to send us to their school, which was white. And that feeling and that tone is still in the air, is that Jena High School does not belong to black kids, it belongs to the white kids. And as a result of that, many black kids, many black parents, are saying that we have no school anymore. Many white parents are saying, “This is our school. We don’t need y’all here anymore, either.”

So, from that angle, my position has always been, is that we’re not worried about what school we go to; education is the most important thing. And if we’re going to get an education in La Salle Parish, those of us that live in the Jena area, our kids must go to Jena High School. And we can forget about the name. All we want teachers to do is teach. Then we learn, and we get out of here.

My wife and I have had two children to graduate from Jena High School. Neither one of them have ever had a problem, because they left here every day knowing that the number one reason why they were in schools was to get an education, so they can get a foundation and go on some place and develop themselves, so that they can become self-sufficient and take care of themselves. So this is what I’ve tried to maintain my 50 years here.

AMY GOODMAN: When did you hear about the nooses being hung from the tree?

CLEVELAND RISER JR.: The same day that it was heard of or talked about in town. I don’t know what date that was, but it was the same day that — when the nooses were there and the uproar started.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did you think when you heard it?

CLEVELAND RISER JR.: I thought it was a disgrace, first. And then it even has become more disgraceful, because of the action that was taken and the compounding of all of the town folks wanting to get involved — not all of them, but the powers that are wanted to get involved in what was a school matter. And they did not get into it in the right way, as far as I understand, by what the law should be. And so, it really bothered me. And it still bothers me, because from that, I think it was the fire that started all of the confusion we have now.

AMY GOODMAN: The school principal recommended that the students who hung the nooses be expelled. The superintendent —- you were an assistant superintendent there -—

CLEVELAND RISER JR.: No, no, not now. I retired in ’85.

AMY GOODMAN: No. But you were an assistant —


AMY GOODMAN: — in terms of positions, you know that position well.


AMY GOODMAN: The superintendent overruled him and said that the students should not be expelled, more saw it as a high school prank.


AMY GOODMAN: Do you think the superintendent did the right thing?

CLEVELAND RISER JR.: That was a tremendous mistake from an administrative point of view, simply because of the awareness of what that really meant and in a time when there’s a lot of other undercurrents of confusion between the races anyway. And by the superintendent and the boards and this committee that was formed to review this saying that it was something minor is a thing I call ignorance.

AMY GOODMAN: We just talked a white Jena resident who said older people understand the significance of the noose, but the kids, they don’t.

CLEVELAND RISER JR.: I think black kids understand it. White kids may not. They may think it is a game. But the history of nooses is not something that you want to be comfortable with.

AMY GOODMAN: You want to talk about the history of Jena, in terms of that symbolism, the history of this area?

CLEVELAND RISER JR.: That symbolism has not been — that was the first time it was just brought up here, as far as public discussion was concerned. Many people here, I do believe, and especially if they are adults, have read the history of what they meant. And many of them, I don’t necessarily say that they agree. I know that in the black community, it’s never been one that was accepted, that any action of this nature was simply trying to carry you back to some times when you didn’t exist, not this current group of generation of us now. So, the concept was attached to it here in Jena openly, when that did occur.

AMY GOODMAN: Is it fair to describe this part of the country, decades ago, as Klan country?

CLEVELAND RISER JR.: I found the Klan group when I came in 1956.

AMY GOODMAN: Where did you find it?

CLEVELAND RISER JR.: Up and down the streets here, because they were riding on the hoods. I knew the Grand Dragon.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about him.

CLEVELAND RISER JR.: I made it a point to know him, because my experience in the military. I appreciated to the fact that — in fact, I accepted to go into the military to make sure that there was no reason why I shouldn’t be an American. And when I got out, I proceeded to go to LSU to go to school, where I met the same thing there: rejection because my skin was black. And, of course, I did have a military discharge, and I said to the instructor that questioned my being there, asked him if he had one, and he said no. Then I asked him the same question he asked me: “What are you doing here?”

Of course, when I got to know the Klansmen here, I simply said to them that “I have a right to be here, and I have a family that don’t need anybody riding a hood by and interfering with my livelihood, and if you call yourself a man, I would like to meet you outside away from under that hood.” And so, I was able to meet a few.

AMY GOODMAN: Did they take off their hoods?

CLEVELAND RISER JR.: Oh, yeah. I knew once I found out who they were, I made it a point to make sure I met them.


CLEVELAND RISER JR.: Why? Because you don’t represent yourself a man under a hood, and I made this known, that if you’re not man enough to let people see who you are, you’re a coward. And so, I just don’t deal with cowards.

AMY GOODMAN: So when you met them, what did you say?

CLEVELAND RISER JR.: I said a few dirty words. I’m not going to repeat them. But I did say this one thing, is that, “As an American, I have a right to be here. As a man, I respect you enough to let you look at me in the face. And if you disrespect yourself enough not to look me in the face, then you have a real problem.”

AMY GOODMAN: And so, we come to 2007.


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the Jena Six. You have the nooses that were hung. The kids are not suspended — they’re not expelled; they’re suspended. You have escalating tension, and then you have the schoolyard fight.

CLEVELAND RISER JR.: Politically based pressures on those who are in authority positions to, quote, in some people’s opinion, “let them know what their place is, and we have an opportunity now to do this. So from your position, we want you to make sure that they remember that there are some bridges you don’t cross in Jena,” just as there are some in many other places that are known not to be crossed, as well. We’re not the only — we’re just a little small part of America that became visible.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think it was right of the DA, Reed Walters, to go into the school?

CLEVELAND RISER JR.: No. And I told him so.

AMY GOODMAN: Why? Why was it wrong?

CLEVELAND RISER JR.: He’s not a school administrator. The major problem that we have — remember I told you it’s politics? — is that the politics of the school system is based upon people that does not have education as their motive. The policy of the school system, and that means those who are elected school board members, many of them, and traditionally — this has been a fact — they have their little domains. That means, from the section which they are elected, they are elected based upon who do you stand for, us or inclusive of them? And many times it does appear, because I do not live in those areas, but many of the actions is that we don’t necessarily — I don’t necessarily represent all of them; I represent you, because you elected me.

AMY GOODMAN: What did Reed Walters say when you told him it was wrong of him to go into the school?

CLEVELAND RISER JR.: He disagreed. That’s all. He just disagreed.

AMY GOODMAN: How did he explain himself?

CLEVELAND RISER JR.: What he said is confidential between me and him, but he just disagreed.

AMY GOODMAN: During this time, did you see the tensions escalating?

CLEVELAND RISER JR.: I felt, because of the dialogue that went between the black community, especially, that it was a threat, that it was an intimidation act to give unrest to the black children who were on that campus. And it was taken, as some of them referred to it, as a joke, which was a tremendous mistake by the sheriff. Initially, the sheriff’s department wasn’t involved as much as they should have or could have, would have, had it been just the reverse of people who probably had that same actions. It just brought out something that was apparent, but it was lying dormant.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think now should happen?

CLEVELAND RISER JR.: What do I think now should happen? One, there should be a very thorough investigation by whatever power that has the guts to do it. And by that, I simply mean there are some rights and wrongs in our country, and the rights are talked about, but the wrongs are never investigated. And that’s the reason why I say there needs to be some investigation and some follow-up from the noose hanging that would show that once it was ignited, then it became more inflamed by the actions of whites against the black, and then nothing was done about that.

Then, all of a sudden, one black — one white child gets involved with a fight, where he didn’t stand a chance of winning, because he just didn’t stand a chance, because of either one of the boys could have whipped him, you know, as far as that’s concerned. The holding a boy to say that he was — assault and battery was something that knocked the boy unconscious —nobody else showed me where the boy was hit, knocked unconscious. Did he fell and bump his head on the ground? I mean, I don’t know who did that. So nobody else said that he was conscious, unconscious when he hit the ground. Nobody knows.

So what I’m thinking is that with an unbiased group of people looking at all of the facts of where this has escalated to now, a lot of the decisions that have been made would be reversed, because one — a decision not to say anything, do anything to a white man that beat up on these boys that Saturday night, not to do anything or say anything to the white man that took the gun, and these boys took the gun away from him, and charge them with battery and then with taking somebody’s gun. It was the white man’s [inaudible]. Until such times as these things are brought to pass, to be a fact where neglect was done, then you’re going to have justice that has two sides. And if you happen not to be on the light skin side, you’re in trouble.

AMY GOODMAN: The DA is also the lawyer for the school board.

CLEVELAND RISER JR.: Yes. Conflict of interest.

AMY GOODMAN: So when the new school board was elected in January with some old members, some new, they were told to vote on whether the kids should be expelled.


AMY GOODMAN: The DA of was there, and he told them that he couldn’t show them the investigation for them to make their decision upon, because that would compromise the court hearing.

CLEVELAND RISER JR.: He should of recused himself from the whole thing. I mean, when you can’t talk, you can’t talk. Why say something that I’m saying it from my position, rather than saying my duty to all the people? So, why say anything? Why get involved in it? If it’s going to have to come by me to take it to court, why should I be involved? Why should I advise anybody? So when you recuse yourself or show that you didn’t have any regard for what the law says by being a part of any of the discussion, going to Jena High School was a grand mistake. I mean, what are you going to go up there for? You’re not a teacher. Nobody hired you to go up there and then discipline kids.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, how has this whole controversy make you feel about your town, your city, Jena?

CLEVELAND RISER JR.: It makes me understand that there are fragments of the United States that got caught with their hand in the cookie jar. That’s the way it makes me feel. And that it won’t be the last time it happens. It just so happened it happened in Jena this time. And that when this is all said and done, it’s going to be another page in what the powers that are and, because of the texture of one’s skin, what can happen to you in a country that says that this is America. That’s all. We’re not near to the system of acceptance. I just wonder how this is going to work 10 years from now in this country, when there will be no racial dominance.

AMY GOODMAN: Is there anything else you would like to add?

CLEVELAND RISER JR.: Yeah. I would like to add this. I don’t mind talking about our situation, but I do want everybody to know: Jena is not a bad place to live in. No. The reason why it’s not is because — many people think it’s not, just simply because, in my opinion, people do not pursue their interests; they, many times, live in the past. They live in what happened during the early period of our grandparents’ life. And this is white and black, you see? It’s not a matter of just this one group. It’s I can’t — what two school board members told me when I applied for the superintendent’s job is that, “I know that you are the best prepared person. I believe that this school system would be in very good hands if we would elect you. But I can’t vote for you,” simply because of the pattern of recognition given to black people when his dad was living.

So — and I wouldn’t say that that’s just Jena. I live next door to Jonesville. My home is in Winfield. I have friends all over the state. And these are the same problems. They’re just not caught up in the media, as we’ve gotten caught up. Actually, myself, I’m glad we did. I’m glad we got caught in the situation so that more people could find out, one, the value of education, and let’s everybody go back to work on that part, because ignorance is a bad disease. And if you don’t replace it with something good, you’re going to have three or four more generations coming along being ignorant. That’s it.

AMY GOODMAN: Cleveland Riser Jr., former assistant superintendent of schools in La Salle Parish, the highest-level position a black man has ever occupied in the school system there in Jena.

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