The Deacons for Defense employed violence as a means of fighting for civil rights in the 1960s
Book review by Thomas Uskali
The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement is so full of historical revelations that readers are likely to be shaking their heads in amazement at least once every chapter. Author Lance Hill explores the rich and harrowing story of the Deacons, a group that began as a way of protecting African Americans from KKK violence in mid-1960s Louisiana. Their story had been only marginally documented up to this point; Hill’s careful historical study gives the reader an insider’s details with gripping narrative momentum.
The book illustrates that the civil rights movement “did not march in unison and speak with only one voice. The black community had its share of traitors, rascals, and ordinary fools.” Further, the national powers (such as CORE -Congress of Racial Equality) that played a central role in voter registration often imposed their national organization’s philosophy, paying little regard to the political and social conditions within a particular town or region. Hill’s work makes it clear how fragile the alliances within the movement were, and that our historical view of universal civil rights as somehow “inevitable” isn’t accurate.
African Americans who endured racial inequities in Louisiana and across the South chose various means to express their discontent. For some, it meant toeing the church line, keeping quiet, and working within the system. This required acquiescence to the white hegemony in turn for “inducements” such as “positions in government and public education, ranging from school bus drivers to school administrators.” In addition, most of the volunteers who came to the South in 1964 agreed that “nonviolence was the most effective way to appeal to the conscience of northerners and encourage federal intervention.”
However, in practice, violence (or at least the presence of loaded weapons) was seen as a necessary part of the civil rights movement. While national CORE leaders were often devout pacifists, local leaders such as Ronnie Moore, a black native Louisianan from Jonesboro, birthplace of the Deacons, “regarded nonviolence as more of a tactic than a philosophical precept.” This view is shared by many of the locals, many of whom kept hunting rifles for sport and handguns for protection.
Hill clearly shows how the Deacons for Defense and justice began with a few men trying to protect their community from the threat of violence from the Ku Klux Klan. Hill notes: “Southern society rested on white supremacy. The death of segregation meant the death of the old social order. Segregationists were not far from the truth when they charged that integration was revolution.”
The “revolution” would begin in Jonesboro, Louisiana, about 60 miles west of Monroe, site of one of the first CORE initiatives. CORE was there to “focus on voter registration and desegregation of public facilities and public accommodations.” When Jonesboro men like Earnest Thomas, a hard-working African-American with a “penchant for force” volunteered to help CORE, they went on their nighttime protection watches with guns. They had seen KKK-inspired fear firsthand, and believed that having armed patrols was essential. Certainly this was a conflict for the national organizations, which were suddenly working with volunteers who believed “that a show of weapons would discourage Klan violence.” The locals were proven right in the end, but the conflict within the movement would never be resolved.
On a summer night in 1964, soon after CORE arrived in Jonesboro, the local black neighborhood’s electrical power was suddenly shut off. Stunned families watched as a caravan of 50 cars, led by a police cruiser, rolled through. Hooded men in the cars tossed anti-CORE leaflets on the ground. For Earnest Thomas and his friends, it was an act of provocation. Years of tolerating the status quo made them realize that “power had to be seized, not bequeathed,” and that this was the time for a big change.
Twenty-three-year-old Charlie Fenton, a white activist from New York, would be instrumental in helping these small-town volunteers transform into the Deacons. Fenton was an avowed pacifist, but he came to understand the strategies of the Jonesboro men and their ideas about self defense. In his initial meetings with the men, he was hopeful of turning their activism nonviolent. Although it didn’t work out exactly as he’d planned, he initiated the dialogue that led to further meetings and a charter for their organization. CORE volunteers had been calling the group “deacons” because they had originally “worked with some of the men in their capacity as church deacons,” and by January 1965 their permanent name became “Deacons for Defense and justice.”
The turning point for the Deacons was a New York Times story on February 21, 1965, with the headline, “Armed Negroes Make Jonesboro Unusual Town.” Written by Fred Powledge, the article used the members themselves to tell their story, and portrayed the Deacons as a “mutual protection association.” Suddenly the Deacons were at the forefront of a new political force — seeking “equality through force and self reliance.” On that same day, a Deacons’ chapter was founded in Bogalusa, Louisiana, and in Harlem, Malcolm X was gunned down. As Hill notes, “On the day that Malcolm X perished, the Deacons were born. Violence had been both executioner and midwife.”
The principles of nonviolence espoused by Martin Luther King, who urged blacks to “fill the jails and ‘arouse the federal government,’ ” diverged from those of the Deacons, who saw “equal rights as more than civil rights.” Beyond voting rights and desegregation, “they wanted equality as consumers and beneficiaries of government services.” For small-town blacks, the two strategies created a conundrum endure a non-violent status quo that might take decades to change, or live through what could be a bloody struggle.
In Jonesboro, a school boycott was the flash point for the newly powerful Deacons. Inflamed by Selma, Alabama’s “Bloody Sunday” police attack on freedom marchers and the recent firing of a beloved faculty member, Jackson High School students staged a walkout in March 1965. Students at the segregated school “were coming to resent the servile way that some administrators accommodated segregationist forces.” Their frustration spilled into a weeks-long protest, leading to a standoff between local police and the Deacons. Several members were arrested, but the Deacons held fast. When firemen approached the protesting students with hoses in tow, one of the Deacons was heard to say, “If you turn the water on those kids, there’s going to be some blood out here today.” Hill aptly comments: “Although it never found its way into the history of the civil rights movement, the Jonesboro showdown was a historical marker in the emergence of the new black political consciousness in the South.”
Three weeks later, on March 27, Governor John McKeithen presided over negotiations between the Jonesboro school officials and the boycotting students. McKeithen is described as being “tactically moderate,” willing to curry some degree of favor with black voters, but fearful of white backlash. By conceding to most of the boycotters’ demands, he won favor with blacks, but also won “the instant enmity of the Ku Klux Klan,” who set nearly two dozen crosses ablaze in the Baton Rouge area.
The next site for the Deacon’s role in civil rights struggle would be Bogalusa, a company-owned mill town tucked away in the southeastern corner of the state. Recent mechanization at the lumber mill (owned by Crown-Zellerbach since 1960) increased unemployment, and pitted white workers against black for the few jobs that remained. When word got out that CORE was planning to organize voter registration and integration drives, it sparked a Klan rally.
By October 1964, the federal Community Relations Service (CRS), responsible for implementing the Civil Rights Act, was working with local civic leaders; it was clear that their meetings were going to be carefully watched by segregationists. In the months that followed, the Deacons were protecting visiting civil rights leaders, friends of the movement, and their own families. Hill notes the major differences between the Deacons in their second Louisiana outpost: “Whereas Jonesboro’s leadership was primarily law-abiding and comprised religious community leaders … the Bogalusa group was dominated by less-than-respectable figures … who defied the law and social conventions.” But he adds, “their reputation for violence served them well in their confrontations with the Ku Klux Klan.”
Fighting would continue for months, and Hill does a remarkable job of portraying a sense of the tension in Bogalusa. Car chases, fistfights, continuing harassment and threats were all a part of the Deacons’ lives. Although their persistence was crucial to the eventual outcome, it would take intervention by the United States Department of Justice to bring permanent change. Never before had federal authorities forced a showdown like this one, but Hill notes that all it took was threatening “city officials with modest fines and light jail sentences” to force authorities to protect all the citizens of Bogalusa. The “guerilla war” that many had feared never materialized, and the Klan lost much of their perceived power in the eyes of both blacks and whites.
The Deacons’ continuing work in Natchez and outside the state brought them both acclaim and controversy. Dozens of Deacons’ groups were established across the South, remaining a loose confederation bound mostly by name and a common purpose. Revolutionary groups, even the Black Muslim Nation, became interested in the Deacons and coopted the organization’s strategies for their own uses.
This dramatic historical narrative begs the question of why the Deacons’ story has never been told. In his masterful conclusion, which succinctly covers the historical landscape, Hill explains: “The experience of the Deacons lays bare the myth of nonviolence, testifying to the crucial role of defensive violence in securing enforcement of the law of the land.” Hill asserts that the Deacons’ story has been purposely forgotten — “They stood as an embarrassing testimonial to the level of force that was necessary to bring African Americans into full citizenship.”
The Deacons for Defense is polished historical writing at its best. This is a book that deserves to be widely read -the story has been kept in the background for too long, and this is a fitting and elegant re-introduction to its place in American history.
Thomas Uskali is a freelance writer and artist residing in New Orleans. He regularly critiques books for the Mobile (AI.) Register.