In June 1965 James Farmer, leader of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and longtime champion of Gandhian nonviolence, arrived in Bogalusa, Louisiana, to support a desegregation struggle in the heart of “Klan nation.” Farmer had been escorted from New Orleans airport by a group of armed black men, who also stationed themselves in the hall where he spoke and watched discreetly over the march he led the next day through the town center. Pressed by reporters on his organization’s links with the men with guns–members of the Deacons for Defense and Justice–Farmer was coy. “Even in the church you have your sinners: we feel we can demonstrate to these people with our philosophy of love and nonviolence that there is another way.”
To many, it seemed a hopeless attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable, but in retrospect the scene exemplifies the tensions and contradictions that infused the African-American freedom struggle on the eve of the Watts riot. The initial advances of the civil rights movement had been met with a brutal wave of white terrorism. In the states of the Deep South, the federal government seemed unwilling to enforce either the new Civil Rights Act or the Constitution. It was in response to the growing sense of crisis and impotence that the Deacons emerged in mid-1964 in the pine hills of northern Louisiana. Offering a blend of armed self-defense, grassroots organizing and black pride, they rapidly attained legendary status in besieged black communities and attracted sensationalist coverage in the white media. Their meteoric career–by 1968 they had vanished from the scene–spanned a watershed in the movement’s history, when, according to some versions, the idealism and unity of the nonviolent phase gave way to extremism, bitterness and factionalism.
That schema has always been a tendentious political construct, and the remarkable tale of the Deacons for Defense illustrates just how artificial it is. Lance Hill’s book is the first full account of the group and fills a major lacuna in the history of the era and the movement. It is also a welcome corrective to the school of civil rights historians who try to fix this multipronged, protean movement into the static polarities of nonviolence and violence, liberal integrationism and radical separatism.
As Hill notes, even before the advent of the Deacons, defensive violence was by no means alien to the movement. In Monroe, North Carolina, Robert Williams had transformed his local NAACP branch into an armed self-defense unit, for which transgression he was denounced by the NAACP and hounded by the federal government (he found asylum in Cuba). More typically, efforts to provide physical protection for movement leaders and activists were discreet and unaccompanied by ideological claims. Devotees of nonviolence in CORE and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee–and indeed Martin Luther King Jr. himself–were all aware that many of the local activists with whom they worked carried guns, and they often quietly accepted the protection these guns afforded. Fannie Lou Hamer, the eloquently blunt Mississippi militant who outraged LBJ at the 1964 Democratic convention, confessed that she kept several loaded guns under her bed.
In 1964, as part of the Freedom Summer project, CORE sent volunteers into the paper-mill town of Jonesboro in northern Louisiana. As elsewhere, the sudden appearance in their midst of activists challenging a long-entrenched system of white supremacy, yet committed to a creed of nonviolence, created a predicament for local people, who knew just how ferocious the white reaction to the CORE workers would be. A small group led by mill worker and Korean War veteran Earnest “Chilly Willy” Thomas took it upon themselves to act as armed sentinels outside CORE’s Freedom House. At the same time, high school teacher Fred Kirkpatrick persuaded the police to allow him to set up an auxiliary black volunteer police force. Both hoped to provide some physical protection for the CORE activists and for local black residents as they undertook their first organized challenge to Jim Crow.