During a recent trip to Jena, Democracy Now! interviewed Billy “Bulldog” Fowler, a member of the La Salle Parish School Board. Fowler, 68, moved to Jena in 1940. He says Jena is being unfairly painted as racist. He feels the hanging nooses were blown out of proportion, that in the high school setting it was more of a prank: “This is the Deep South, and [older] black people know the meaning of a noose. Let me tell you something: Young people don’t.” [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Racial tensions are running deep in Jena. Being in the media spotlight has only made it more uncomfortable for some residents of this 85 percent white town. They feel Jena has been unfairly painted as “the most racist town in the world.”
I spoke to La Salle Parish School Board member Billy Wayne Fowler when Democracy Now! went to Jena earlier this month. His brother Mack Fowler retired as the coach of the high school football team. Almost all the Jena Six had played for the school, and Mychal Bell, in particular, was considered a star player with a future in professional football.
I want to play excerpts of the interview with the 68-year-old school board member, Billy Fowler. He moved to Jena in 1940.
BILLY FOWLER: Our town? Our town is a typical Deep South town. If I could take you back 50 years ago, a lot of this that’s been said today may be true. But if you compare us today to 50 years ago, we have come a long way. We’re still not perfect, but we still are Deep South Southerners.
I don’t think you find anybody here that mistreats black folks. There’s nothing in Jena that whites do that blacks can’t do. Not one thing. If you’d have come during the week, I could have taken you up to the swimming pool, where blacks and white mix swimming. We had a football game here a week ago, blacks and white mixing without incident.
Only a small portion of the black community here claims that we are racial. A big majority of the black folks will tell you they don’t think it is. Unfortunately, the early stories that came out of the national medias was inaccurate, and they only covered one side of the story.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, tell us about what happened last September, the student asking in the assembly if he could sit under the tree.
BILLY FOWLER: OK. I’m glad you asked that question. The answer to that question came out as clear as the nose on your face when the FBI report was made public. The FBI was in here days after all this took place, and they spent considerable time here and they did a thorough investigation. They turned their investigation over to the U.S. attorney for the Justice Department, who is Donald Washington, housed out of Lake Charles, Louisiana. And I happened to be at the forum when he gave the FBI report.
And what he said in his report is that he could find nothing that was done wrong here in Jena by any authority. He couldn’t find any law that had been violated in order to bring a charge against anybody. Now, he said that he felt like the DA’s charges were harsh, but it was within the scope of the law. It was to the fullest extent of the law. He didn’t agree with it, and neither do most people around here today. Both black and white thinks the charges were too high.
Even when you ask about the boys asking the principal if they could sit under the tree, well, these two sets, the white group and the black group, they were always throwing darts at one another in a joking manner. And that’s what the FBI report said. It was in a joking manner. Bad taste. Bad taste. Shouldn’t have happened. But that’s what was happening.
Now, I know what’s probably going through your mind: Now, this is the Deep South, and black people don’t know the significance of a noose? Well, let me tell you something: The young black folks in the Deep South probably don’t understand that. The older ones do, and they resent it, and I don’t blame them. But the new ones, I’m not sure if they do or not.
AMY GOODMAN: Could you feel the tensions rising after that in the next few months?
BILLY FOWLER: Well, the tensions have never been what you probably think that they were. Only the parents involved, of the six, you know, obviously, they’re going to be upset.
But let me make another point here. When Mr. Washington went over the hate crime and told why the two white guys couldn’t be charged, because blacks and whites were sticking their head through the noose in a joking manner, well, after he went over those five components and said that the main component is there has to be intent to harm, now, who do you think more fits a hate crime here than anybody? If you take what a hate crime, the five components, who more closely fits that than anybody? The six.
It was a plan. It wasn’t a fight; it was a planned deal. And there were people that got there to break it up pretty quick. The guy was laying on the ground unconscious. Now, as it turned out, he might not have been injured as severely as they first thought. He looked like he was dead, laying on the ground, because he was out. And they were still pounding on him. When they got there, pulled them off of him. So, was that intent to harm? In my estimation, it is.
But you know what? Little old Jena being — supposed to be the most racist town in the world. Nobody here has ever even suggested that, nor do we want them charged with that. We think the charges were too stiff, too harsh, and I believe they’re going to be reduced down. They did break the law, and they’re going to be convicted of something, but it’s going to be a lot lesser.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve lived here. I spent 45 years in education before I retired, and coaching. I don’t see black or white. I see right and wrong. And I’m from the old school. I don’t apologize for that, but I come from the old school, and I’m one of these that, you know, if I tell you I want something done, I want it done right now. And I don’t want to hear excuses. I want to get it done. So, my outlook on this, I feel like they did wrong. There’s some consequences to it, but not second-degree murder.
AMY GOODMAN: Have you talked to the DA —
BILLY FOWLER: No.
AMY GOODMAN: Reed Walters about this?
BILLY FOWLER: No. Hard to see him, understandably so. He’s got a number of things going for him or going that he’s having to tend to, and he don’t have time to talk to people like me or anybody else. But I’ve talked to probably more people around here than anybody, and I’m about the only white person that will talk.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?
BILLY FOWLER: Ma’am, most of them started out wanting to talk, until Mr. Mangold of the BBC come in here and did that number on them. I didn’t talk to him. At that time, I wasn’t saying anything. But when I saw that nobody else was going to take, pick up the torch and at least defend our town, I started doing it. And I started trying to find out about divided school, the school getting burned down.
AMY GOODMAN: What happened to the tree?
BILLY FOWLER: Got cut down. And I apologize for not thinking about it soon enough, or I would have cut it down. That tree was a negative thing. School was about to start. Nobody wanted those kids coming back to school looking at that tree with the history that it had. Then the major reason: School burned down, we got to build back. We’re going to build a single-story building, and it’s going to cover that spot where the tree was standing. It’s going to have to. If you go up there and look, you can see that in order to build a large single-story building, it would have to include it. So that’s probably the major reason. And I think the negative thing that the kids would be thinking about couldn’t have been something good.
AMY GOODMAN: How many school board members are there?
BILLY FOWLER: Ten.
AMY GOODMAN: How many are white, how many black?
BILLY FOWLER: There’s one black. That’s 10 percent, right? You know how many black is in this parish?
AMY GOODMAN: How many?
BILLY FOWLER: Eight percent. We got the fewest number of minorities of any parish in this state. It’s 8 percent.
AMY GOODMAN: When Reed Walters, the DA, came to the school after the nooses were hung, after the black students protested by standing under the tree, there was an assembly held —
BILLY FOWLER: Now, that wasn’t a protest. Now, they asked the assistant principal, “Are we allowed to sit under the tree?” And you know what he told them? “You sit anywhere you want to.” Then, they went back the next day, and that’s when the nooses were hung. Again, this is part of that jesting around, from what I’ve been told, probably in very poor taste. I don’t think you will find any more jesting around like that’s going to take place up there.
AMY GOODMAN: I understood that after the nooses were hung, that the black students went under the tree in protest of those nooses?
BILLY FOWLER: Some of them stuck their head through the nooses.
AMY GOODMAN: What does that mean?
BILLY FOWLER: You tell me. That’s part of the joke that I think the FBI report found. Now, if you’re saying that they protested in anger, I don’t think that happened.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, after this, there was an assembly with the DA —
BILLY FOWLER: Right, right.
AMY GOODMAN: — coming, Reed Walters and the police.
BILLY FOWLER: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: And those present said that he said —
BILLY FOWLER: He said some hard things.
AMY GOODMAN: What did you understand he said?
BILLY FOWLER: Well, he said some things. “I could ruin your life with one stroke of a pen.” Again, I can’t speak for him on what he meant. I think what he was trying to say: “We don’t need anymore of this foolishness. Stop it now.” I think that’s what he meant. I don’t think he meant to physically do harm to anybody. But that’s what I think. I don’t know that.
I can tell you one thing: Mr. Chapman from FBI researched that out real thorough. Now, neither he or Donald Washington agreed with the assessment that he shouldn’t have said it, and that’s one of the things that I think if he had it to go over again, I don’t think he would. But I can’t speak for him. I don’t know.
AMY GOODMAN: So what do you think of the logic of the kids thinking: He comes to the school with armed police; he says, “I can wipe you out with the stroke of a pen”; and a few months later, six of them are charged with second-degree attempted murder for a schoolyard fight?
BILLY FOWLER: Well, I guess if you put it like that, it looks bad. But if you consider what those six did, you know, I think it’s pretty safe to say they intended to do some bodily harm. Again, he could have charged them with a hate crime and didn’t. Now, I’ve already said nobody around here wants that to happen, and it can’t happen now. But he could have at that time. There’s a lot of things that probably could be done differently, sort of like Monday morning quarterbacking.
I’m sort of proud of our little town. I think we’ve come a long way. I’m telling you, do you remember when — that was about 50 years ago, maybe a little more — there were strong white groups, not only in Jena, but all the way down through Louisiana?
AMY GOODMAN: By white groups, you mean?
BILLY FOWLER: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean by that?
BILLY FOWLER: I’m just talking about white groups.
AMY GOODMAN: Like the Klan?
BILLY FOWLER: Similar. Now, I was raised here, and what I knew about the Klans were what we read in a history book. It was older white people. But back then, there was certainly no racial issues here. Now, compare that to today, back then blacks would go to the theater; they’d have to sit upstairs, whites down here, because that’s pretty common, if they could even go to the movie. But other than that, other than they had their school, we had ours.
I was raised up here a little place called Goodpine, and there was a Newsweek lady in here, and I spent three hours with her. And I took her over there, and I said, “Now I’m going to take you over to the quarters.” She said, “Is that a racial term?” I said, “No, it’s a sawmill term ’round here, because this used to be a sawmill community.” And we had four large sawmills. And each sawmill, the first people they would bring in when they set up a sawmill were black workers. The first people who were laid off were white people. Now, you say, well, that’s strange. Well, no, not really. They laid them off, because they paid them more than they did the black, and that’s why. But the blacks were never unemployed. And the word “quarters,” that’s where they lived. Our — where we lived was called “quarters.” Sawmill term. And there was a road. I could take you up there and show you where the road is. They didn’t cross over, we didn’t cross over. But on Sunday, we’d play them in baseball. And they beat us nearly every Sunday. They could play baseball. We weren’t very good. But we never had a fight. We never had any disputes. Just had a good time. So we’ve come a long way.
There are no more white groups. The only groups around here now is the NAACP and maybe the ACLU. And in this particular town, I don’t think either one of them are really needed, but if they want to have it, that’s so be it. Doesn’t bother me one bit. And I believe when all this is over, whatever problems that they think they have or want addressed, I think the whites are going to sit down with them and solve any problem that they’ve got. And I’m going to help it. I’m on the school board. And I can promise you, any discipline that’s handed out that’s not fair and even, the school board is going to get involved. There will be — I don’t know if blacks have been mistreated on discipline in the past or not, but I can tell you it’s not going to happen on our watch, especially after this.
AMY GOODMAN: La Salle Parish School Board member, Billy Wayne Fowler. Stay with us, as we continue our special voices of Jena.