By Any Means Necessary
Later, the Deacons provided essential muscle for Charles Evers's uncompromising (and ultimately successful) desegregation campaign in Natchez, Mississippi, as well as discreet security for the 1966 march through the state led by James Meredith. By then, there were Deacons branches in twenty-one communities. Thomas and Sims sought to spread their organization to the cities of the North and West but failed; the particular conditions that gave birth to the Deacons and made their tactics effective did not exist outside the South.
Hill has done a service by rescuing the Deacons from oblivion. But in staking their claims, he sometimes oversimplifies and underestimates the larger movement from which they emerged. In the context of Southern society in the late 1950s and early '60s, nonviolent direct action represented a bold and innovative break from the past. It challenged the fatalism and political quiescence of the black church as well as the snail's-pace legalism of the liberals. It was designed to discomfit and disturb, and for those who took part, it was anything but passive. And for the whites whose assumptions and privileges it challenged, it was nothing less than an extremist provocation. To demand, however nonviolently, a seat at a lunch counter or a library was tantamount to a public assault on an entrenched caste order--which was why the reaction was obdurate and violent.
It has been said that nonviolence stresses the primacy of means and self-defense the primacy of ends. Both propositions are flawed. Nonviolence was often adopted because of its efficacy rather than its moral purity, while armed self-defense served a psychological and symbolic function as much as a pragmatic one. Hill argues that in taking up arms, the Deacons offered a much-needed symbol of "black manhood," one that altered the consciousness of both blacks and whites and overthrew the ancient stereotype of black submissiveness. Both nonviolence and armed self-defense illustrated the power of symbolic action in social struggles--and its limitations. After the Deacons, armed resistance increasingly replaced nonviolence as a magical mantra, a key to unlocking the latent power of the black masses. The claims of "redemptive suffering" were pushed aside by the (equally mystical) claims of redemptive aggression. Detached from a mass movement and a political strategy, neither could be more than gestures.
In assessing the contributions of the Deacons or other agents in the African-American freedom struggle, it's important to bear in mind two defining characteristics of major social movements. First, as the word implies, they are in motion (when they cease to be in motion, they either vanish or become institutionalized). Second, they are composite. It was the shifting interaction of the civil rights movement's diverse strands and strategies that drove it forward. In the Deacons' story, one finds judicial actions alongside nonviolent pickets and armed sentries; local grassroots initiatives alongside national campaigns; appeals to liberal values mixed with assertions of black pride and self-reliance; color-blind constitutionalism and racially autonomous insurgency; negotiation and confrontation.
This is not to say that all the varying elements in the movement were of equal weight or to deny the need to assess strategic and tactical options. What the story of the Deacons confirms is that in movements that truly shake the world, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. For historians, as for activists, precise assessment and hard choices have to be made, but they are best made within this larger ecumenical reality.