Black teenager arrest in the beating of a white classmate has caused racial protests expected to culminate Thursday with thousands of protesters converging on this small central Louisiana town.
"It breaks our hearts to see him in handcuffs and leg shackles, but his spirit is high," Sharpton said after his courthouse meeting with Mychal Bell, one of the group of teenagers dubbed the "Jena Six" by their supporter.
Bell and four others originally faced trial as adults on attempted second-degree murder charges in connection with a December attack that left white classmate Justin Barker bloodied and unconscious. (Another teen was booked as a juvenile and charges have not been make public.)
As the teens have come up for arraignment, charges have been reduced but critics of the local prosecutor are still crying foul. Bell, the only one of the six tried so far, was convicted of aggravated second-degree battery and faced a possible prison sentence of 15 years.
British rocker David Bowie has donated $10,000 (7,156 EUR) to a legal defense fund for the six teens.
"There is clearly a separate and unequal judicial process going on in the town of Jena," Bowie said Tuesday in an e-mail statement. "A donation to the Jena Six Legal Defense Fund is my small gesture indicating my belief that a wrongful charge and sentence should be prevented."
Bowie's donation to the Jena Six Legal Defense Fund was announced by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"We are gratified that rock star David Bowie was moved to donate to the NAACP's Jena campaign," National Board of Directors Chairman Julian Bond of the NAACP, said in a statement. "We hope others will join him."
Bell was found guilty on second-degree battery charges June 28 by a six-member, all-white jury. Before the case was overturned by the state 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal, his sentencing had been set for Thursday.
The court said Bell, who was 16 at the time of the alleged December 2006 beating, should not have been tried as an adult.
Sharpton said he expects more than 10,000 marchers to protest Thursday in Jena, a town with a population of about 3,500. Martin Luther King III and the Rev. Jesse Jackson also are expected to attend the march.
Sharpton said Bell wants to make sure the rally is peaceful. "He doesn't want anything done that would disparage his name - no violence, not even a negative word," Sharpton said.
Thursday's march is to begin at 7 a.m. and will pass the stump of a tree that became the focal point of the current racial tensions.
The tree on the campus of Jena High School had been a gathering spot for white students. After a black student asked school officials if blacks could sit there too, three nooses were found hanging from the tree.
Three white students were suspended for hanging the nooses. Interracial fights reportedly followed, leading to the December school yard attack on Barker. During the resulting uproar, local authorities had the tree cut down.
Sharpton said there also will be an 11 a.m. rally in nearby Alexandria, about an hour's drive from Jena.
Schools in Jena will close Thursday and many businesses in the town of 2,900 also say they will shut down, concerned about whether the march will remain peaceful.
The choice of the city of Helsinki is not incidental as the capital of Finland had hosted US-Soviet negotiations on the limitation of nuclear stockpiles in 1969