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Thousands March in Washington to Call for Prosecution of Hate Crimes

Busloads of African Americans from across the United States converged on Washington Friday, to march around the Justice Department building, demanding more enforcement of hate crime laws. One reason for the protest was anger over tough charges against six black high school students accused of beating a white student in Jena, Louisiana in December, 2006. VOA's Cindy Saine reports on the rally from Washington.

Reverend Al Sharpton, a well-known civil rights leader, organized the protest march, targeting the Justice Department for what he says is its failure to intervene and prosecute hate crimes against African Americans and other minorities. "No justice, no peace. No justice, no peace. No justice, no peace," he said.

Organizers said more than 100 busloads came for the march, from as far away as Florida, Michigan, and Washington state.

Sharpton was joined by a number of leading black radio hosts, and by Martin Luther King III, the son of the slain civil rights leader. Sharpton was pleased at the turnout at Freedom Plaza in downtown Washington. "And look behind you all the way to the end of the plaza. From all over this country, we're here. The Justice Department wouldn't come to the people, we brought the people to the Justice Department," he said.

Tensions flared between black and white students in the small town after a noose was hung from a tree at the high school - a symbol of the lynching of blacks in segregationist times. Three white students accused in that incident were suspended from school, but not prosecuted. After the noose incident, six black students at the school were initially charged with murder in connection with the beating of a white student. One of the black suspects served nearly ten months in jail.

The so-called "Jena 6" case has angered many African Americans.

Since the Jena case, there have been several other noose incidents across the country. Federal prosecutors say they are actively investigating several noose incidents for possible prosecution. They say they did not bring charges in the Jena school case because the suspects were minors.

Sharpton explained why seeing a noose strikes such an emotional chord with African Americans. "When you hang up a noose, that's no joke to us. Our granddaddies swung on them nooses. Our grandmamas swung on them nooses. The nooses are no prank. We were lynched, we were murdered," he said.

Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who officially took office this week, released a statement responding to the march. He commended the protesters for highlighting the issues of tolerance and civil liberties, but said he hoped everyone can agree that it is the criminals who commit violent acts of hate who deserve the loudest protest.