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Thousands Protest Alleged Racial Inequality in Small US Town

Thousands of chanting protesters from across the United States have gathered in a small town in the southern state of Louisiana in support of six black teenagers facing serious charges for allegedly beating a white classmate. Civil rights leaders are comparing the protest to demonstrations in the 1960s for racial equality in America. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports from Washington.

The crowd broke into chants of free the Jena Six, referring to six black teenagers initially charged with attempted murder in the beating of a white student at their school.

The six black students were charged a few months after three white teenagers were accused of hanging nooses in a tree on their high school grounds, a move that stoked racial tensions in the small town of Jena, Louisiana.

The white students were suspended from school, but were not charged with a crime.

The black students were initially charged with attempted murder. The charges against four of the teens were later reduced, while a court overturned another student's 15-year prison sentence last week.

Civil rights leaders say the cases highlight lingering racism in southern states, particularly in the judicial system.

Activists say the demonstration could be the beginning of a 21st century civil rights movement in the United States and is reminiscent of protests in the 1960s against unequal treatment for black Americans.

The Reverend Al Sharpton, a civil rights leader from New York, met with Mychal Bell, the black student whose conviction was overturned, but who remains in jail while prosecutors prepare to appeal. Afterwards, Sharpton spoke to reporters.

"It breaks our heart to see him handcuffed and in leg shackles, but his spirit is high," he said. "He has said that he is in very encouraged to know thousands of people are coming to this little town to stand up for him and his five friends."

Protesters arrived in buses and cars from cities as far away as New York, Atlanta and Los Angeles to rally support for the black teenagers.

The rally was heavily promoted on web sites, blogs and radio stations.

Protester Sarah Ward says the case deserves the publicity.

"It is a lot of things, injustice on a lot of levels and things that are still going on in this country that I think that a lot of people are not aware of," she said. "So I think we feel an obligation to bring some awareness to things that are going on."

District Attorney Reed Walters, who is prosecuting the black students, said the case has never been about race.

He denounced the white students who hung the nooses, but said they were not prosecuted because he could find no law under which they could be charged.

With the white victim of the school beating, Justin Barker, standing silently behind him, Walters told reporters his only motivation is finding justice for an innocent victim.

"With all of the focus on the defendants, many people seem to have forgotten that there was a victim in this case," he said. "The injury that was done to him and the serious threats to his survival have become less than a footnote."

The case of the Jena Six is getting national attention.

President Bush says he understands the emotional nature of the situation.

"The events in Louisiana have saddened me," said Mr. Bush. "I understand the emotions. The Justice Department and the FBI are monitoring the situation down there. All of us in America want there to be fairness when it comes to justice."

White residents in Jena have been reluctant to comment, saying privately they believe their town is being unfairly portrayed as racist.