By Any Means Necessary
In early 1965 black students picketing the local high school were confronted by hostile police who called in a firetruck to hose them down. A car pulled up, four Deacons emerged and in view of the police calmly loaded their shotguns. The police ordered the firetruck to retreat. "For the first time in the twentieth century," Hill observes, "an armed black organization had successfully used weapons to defend a lawful protest against an attack by law enforcement." Fearing a repetition of the widely publicized violence in Selma, Alabama, the segregationist Louisiana governor intervened; town leaders were forced to accede to the black community's demands.
Bogalusa, in the southeastern corner of the state, was the site of the Deacons' next major undertaking, and here too their emergence and activity were intertwined with a nonviolent campaign initiated by CORE. When local police, in cahoots with the Klan, tried to scare two white CORE volunteers out of the black community, a posse of gun-toting black men turned up on the scene to protect the two pacifists. It was another white CORE activist who set up a meeting between the Bogalusa people and the Jonesboro Deacons. "You got to forget about right, because right ain't gonna get you justice," Kirkpatrick advised the Bogalusa group. Thomas told them the Deacons had grenades and automatic weapons (an exaggeration). "The man gonna think twice before he moves, 'cause he knows he done moved on the devil."
Charlie Sims became president of the Bogalusa Deacons. With twenty-one arrests and a reputation for carrying a blackjack in one pocket and a loaded pistol in the other, this 41-year-old World War II veteran would never be confused with the students and clergymen popularly identified as the movement's leaders. Like others, Sims had been roused to action by the spectacle of white cops attacking defenseless black women and children on the picket line. The onetime gambler and hustler proved an articulate and disarming spokesman for the Deacons, mingling menace and charm, veiled threats of violent retribution with the most moderate demands for fair treatment.
Though abandoned by federal government and local authorities to Klan terror, the Bogalusa movement waged a spirited campaign, boycotting white businesses and defying hate-spewing white mobs to march repeatedly through the town center. In June the Klan murdered a recently hired black policeman. No one was prosecuted for the crime.
On July 8 a nonviolent black march to city hall was surrounded by hundreds of stone-throwing whites. After a tussle, one member of the Deacons found himself pinned against a car door and menaced by the inflamed white crowd. Another Deacon, Henry Austin, a 21-year-old insurance salesman and Air Force vet, pulled out a .38 and stepped in front of the mob. He fired a warning shot in the air, to no effect. He then fired three shots into the chest of one of the advancing white attackers. The victim survived, and perhaps more amazingly so did Austin, but the social terrain in which the Bogalusa movement unfolded was transformed. In the days following the shooting, the white mobs disappeared. The Klan was confined to conducting terror raids by night and in small bands. The federal government, which had ignored the murder of the black policeman, finally intervened, commencing legal action against both the Klan and city officials. "Overnight, Washington crushed the white supremacist coup in Bogalusa and forced local authorities to uphold the law," Hill observes. "In retrospect, what is remarkable was how little was required to destroy the Klan and force local authorities to protect citizens' rights and liberties. The Federal government did nothing more than threaten city officials with modest fines and light jail sentences." That minimal effort, it seems, was made only after blacks had begun to meet force with force.