It's been a hard year for Melissa Bell. The life of the single mother of three from rural Jena, Louisiana, changed drastically last December when her eldest son, Mychal, was one of six Black teenagers who allegedly took part in a school fight against a White student. The boys were charged with attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy for the schoolyard brawl. In June, Melissa's son-the only one of the six male students accused to stand trial thus far-was convicted in adult court of aggravated battery and conspiracy and faced a prison sentence of up to 15 years.
However, in recent weeks, Mychal's case has taken a hopeful turn. In September, his conviction was overturned when a judge ruled that he had been improperly tried as an adult. Shortly after, tens of thousands of supporters, angered by the severity of the charges filed against the Jena Six, flooded the small town in protest. After nine months behind bars, the 17-year-old was released on bail last week. Essence.com caught up with Melissa Bell to learn how her son is coping, what they both have taken from this experience and why their battle is far from over.
Essence.com: For months you had been fighting for your son's freedom without success. What was your reaction when you learned that he would finally be released?
Melissa Bell: I didn't want to get too excited until I saw that he was out. When we actually signed the papers to let him out that's when I really got excited. We're not fully celebrating because we still have a long way to go, but we were happy to go in there, put some clothes on him and walk him out.
Essence.com: How is Mychal doing?
M.B.: He's doing well. They have him under house arrest and he can't go any farther than home, but all his friends have been visiting him. His first night home he watched TV all night with his friends and slept in the living room. He's nervous, of course, because he has his juvenile court date on October 11, but he's trying to enjoy his friends and not think about it. That's what I told him, "Don't think about it right now; let the lawyers do the thinking."
Essence.com: Last week you spoke with members of Congress about the case. How did that go?
M.B.: I went to Washington with Mychal's dad, Marcus Jones, the Reverend Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III, and we met with the Congressional Black Caucus. They told us they were going to get on this and they did what they said they were going to-help us get Mychal out of there. They've done that and were a big help. They said they were going to see us through all of it.
Essence.com: Are you surprised by the support you've received from around the country?
M.B.: I feel very good about it. It's encouraging to know that so many people are standing behind you and still believe in helping each other. It's great to see all the civil rights leaders, people in high places and all the thousands of people who came to the march. You sometimes forget that people still love each other like that. We need more of that in the world.
Essence.com: How has this experience changed you?
M.B.: It opened my eyes to see that you can't trust everybody because everybody's not your friend. Things can happen to you in the blink of an eye. Your life can change in one day. It made me think about life more and getting my kids together and getting them right with God. We're with God, but getting them straighter with God. And I realize that your kids can be taken from you with a stroke of a pen.
Essence.com: And what about Mychal? Does he seem different?
M.B.: Yes, but not a lot different. He still likes having fun, talking and laughing with his friends, but being locked up for nine months made him grow up a lot quicker and become a man, a better person. He just knows how to handle life better.
Essence.com: Have you talked to Mychal about staying out of trouble?
M.B.: Oh yes, we've been having those conversations for the last ten months. He knows not to get in trouble because he doesn't want to go back to jail and he knows that people will be quick to get him back in there. He knows it won't take much for him to end up in jail again.
Essence.com: There are reports of White supremacist Web sites posting the addresses of the families of the Jena Six. Have you received any threats?
M.B.: I got a hateful letter addressed to Mychal. It didn't have a (sender's) name written on it, but it was from Virginia. Other than that, nobody's bothering me. One of the parents, Bryant Purvis's mother, got a phone call from some guy who left a message (threatening) her son.
Essence.com: Are you concerned about anything happening to your family?
M.B: Not really. We have around-the-clock protection since Mychal's been out. We have undercover state police around the area.
Essence.com: This month, Mychal's case will be tried in juvenile court. Do you think this trial will be different from the previous one?
M.B: Oh yes, I know it's going to be different. I know that for a fact. I have an attorney that's going to fight for Mychal. It isn't like it was last summer.
Essence.com: How was it last summer?
M.B.: It was an all-White trial. There weren't but two Black faces throughout the trial and that was Mychal and the lawyer. The witnesses, the jurors, everybody was White. That was the first problem. The lawyer he had then was appointed to him and didn't call any witnesses. I know the lawyers we have now are ready to take care of business and they will.
Essence.com: What can people do to help?
M.B.: We're still trying to get financial help. We will need to pay our legal team. Right now we have a bank account open for the Mychal Bell Defense Fund.
If you're interested in contributing to the Mychal Bell Defense Fund, please send checks to P.O. Box 2856, Jena, LA 71342
Credit: AP Photo/Alex Brandon