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.
In response to CORE-led protests against Jonesboro’s segregated library and swimming pool, the Klan, with the aid of local police, drove a fifty-car caravan through the midst of the town’s black quarter. Soon after, twenty black men met in a union hall to discuss the organization of community defense. Among them were Kirkpatrick’s police auxiliaries and Thomas’s sentinels. In the months that followed they adopted a formal structure, a set of aims and a name–all of which flew in the face of the code of discretion and anonymity that had governed previous efforts at armed self-defense.
With CB radios and walkie-talkies, the newly formed Deacons for Defense patrolled the black community. Numbers at the nonviolent demonstrations grew rapidly. In December, the protesters succeeded in integrating the library, the first victory for the movement in Jonesboro. When the Klan set crosses ablaze in retaliation, the Deacons issued a leaflet threatening to kill anyone burning a cross in the black community, and then arranged to have the leaflets left at white homes by black domestic workers.
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.
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.