Hat tip to Ray Winbush for sharing this!
Self-Defense Organizations in the Afrikan Community
From the Wikipedia
The Deacons for Defense and Justice was an armed self-defense African-American civil rights organization in the U.S. Southern states during the 1960s. Historically, the organization practiced self-defense methods in the face of racist oppression that was carried out under the Jim Crow Laws by local/state government officials and racist vigilantes. Many times the Deacons are not written about or cited when speaking of the Civil Rights Movement because their agenda of self-defense – in this case, using violence, if necessary – did not fit the image of strict non-violence that leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. espoused. Yet, there has been a recent debate over the crucial role the Deacons and other lesser known militant organizations played on local levels throughout much of the rural South. Many times in these areas the Federal government did not always have complete control over to enforce such laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Deacons were a driving force of Black Power that Stokely Carmichael echoed. Carmichael speaks about the Deacons when he writes, “Here is a group which realized that the ‘law’ and law enforcement agencies would not protect people, so they had to do it themselves…The Deacons and all other blacks who resort to self-defense represent a simple answer to a simple question: what man would not defend his family and home from attack?” The Deacons, according to Carmichael and many others, were the protection that the Civil Rights needed on local levels, as well as, the ones who intervened in places that the state and federal government fell short.
The Deacons were not the first champions of armed-defense during the Civil Rights Movement. Many activists and other proponents of non-violence protected themselves with guns. Fannie Lou Hamer, the eloquently blunt Mississippi militant who outraged Lyndon B. Johnson at the 1964 Democratic Convention, confessed that she kept several loaded guns under her bed. Others such as Robert F. Williams also practiced self-defense. Williams 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).
In many areas of the “Deep South” the federal and state governments had no control of local authorities and groups that did not want to follow the laws enacted. One such group, the Ku Klux Klan, is the most widely known organization that openly practiced acts of violence and segregation based on race. As part of their strategy to intimidate this community [African Americans], the Ku Klux Klan initiated a “campaign of terror” that included harassment, the burning of crosses on the lawns of African-American voters, the destruction by fire of five churches, a Masonic hall, a Baptist center, and murder. These incidents were not isolated since a significant amount of victimization of African Americans occurred in Jonesboro, Louisiana in 1964.
The African-American community felt that a response of action was crucial in curbing this terrorism given the lack of support and protection by State and Federal authorities. A group of African-American men in Jonesboro in Jackson Parish in north Louisiana, led by Earnest “Chilly Willy” Thomas and Frederick Douglas Kirkpatrick, founded the group in November 1964 to protect civil rights workers, their communities and their families against the Klan. Most of the Deacons were war veterans with combat experience from the Korean War and World War II. The Jonesboro chapter later organized a Deacons chapter in Bogalusa, Louisiana, led by Charles Sims, A. Z. Young and Robert Hicks. The Jonesboro chapter initiated a regional organizing campaign and eventually formed 21 chapters in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. The militant Deacons’ confrontation with the Klan in Bogalusa was instrumental in forcing the federal government to invervene on behalf of the black community and enforce the 1964 Civil Rights Act and neutralize the Klan.
Earnest “Chilly Willy” Thomas was born in Jonesboro, Louisiana, on November 20, 1935, in a time of extreme segregation. He believed that political reforms could be secured by force rather than moral appeal. The CORE had a freedom house in Jonesboro that became the target of the Klan. The practice referred to as “nigger knocking” was a time-honored tradition among whites in the rural South.
Because of repeated attacks on the Freedom House, the Black community responded. Earnest Thomas was one of the first volunteers to guard the house. According to Lance Hill, “Thomas was eager to work with CORE, but he had reservations about the nonviolent terms imposed by the young activists.” Thomas, who had military training, quickly emerged as the leader of this budding defense organization that would guard the Jonesboro community in the day with their guns concealed and carried their guns openly during the cover of night to discourage any Klan activity.
There are many accounts of how the group’s name came about, but according to Lance Hill the most plausible explanation is: “the name was a portmanteau that evolved over a period of time, combining the CORE staff’s first appellation of ‘deacons’ with the tentative name chosen in November 1964: ‘Justice and Defense Club’. By January 1965 the group had arrived at is permanent name, ‘Deacons for Defense and Justice.” The organization wanted to maintain a level of respectability and identify with traditionally accepted symbols of peace and moral values. As one ex-Deacon wrote in a lyric of a song, “the term ‘deacons’ was selected to beguile local whites by portraying the organization as an innocent church group….”
The Deacons are the subject of a 2003 television movie, Deacons for Defense.
Produced by Showtime starring academy-award winner Forest Whitaker, Ossie Davis, and Jonathan Silverman, the film is based on the struggle of the actual Deacons for Defense against the Jim Crow South in a powerful area of Louisiana controlled by the Ku Klux Klan. Using the story on a white-owned factory that controls the economy of the local society and the effects of racism and intimidation on the lives of the African-American community, the film follows the psychological transition of a family and
community members from belief in a strict non-violent stance to belief in self-defense.
The Deacons were instrumental in many campaigns led by the Civil Rights Movement. A good example is the June 1966 March Against Fear, which went from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi. The March Against Fear signified a shift in character and power in the southern civil rights movement and was an event in which the Deacons participated.
The Deacons had a relationship with other civil rights groups that advocated and practiced non-violence: the willingness of the Deacons to provide low-key armed guards facilitated the ability of groups such as the NAACP and CORE to stay, at least formally, within their own parameters of non-violence. Although many local chapters felt it was necessary to maintain a level of security by either practicing self-defense as some CORE, SNCC, and NAACP local chapters did, the national level of all these organizations still maintained the idea of non-violence to achieve civil rights. Nonetheless, in some cases, their willingness to respond to violence with violence led to tension between the Deacons and the nonviolent civil rights workers whom they sought to protect.
According to Hill, this is the true resistance that enforced civil rights in areas of the Deep South. Often it was local (armed) communities that laid the foundation for equal opportunities to be attained by African Americans. National organizations played their role, exposing the problems, but it was local organizations and individuals who implemented these rights and were not fearful of reactionary Whites who wanted to keep segregation alive. Without these local organizations pushing for their rights and, many times, using self-defense tactics, not much would have changed, according to Hill.
An example of the need for self-defense to enable substantial change in the Deep South took place in early 1965. Black students picketing the local high school were confronted by hostile police and fire trucks with hoses. A car of four Deacons emerged and, in view of the police, calmly loaded their shotguns. The police ordered the fire truck to withdraw. This was the first time in the 20th century, as Lance Hill observes, “an armed black organization had successfully used weapons to defend a lawful protest against an attack by law enforcement.” Hill gives as another example: “In Jonesboro, the Deacons made history when they compelled Louisiana governor John McKeithen to intervene in the city’s civil rights crisis and require a compromise with city leaders — the first capitulation to the civil rights movement by a Deep South governor.”
The history of the Civil Rights Movement focuses little on organizations such as the Deacons for a number of reasons. First, the dominant ideology of the Movement was one of practicing non-violence and this overarching view has been the accepted way to characterize the Civil Rights Movement. Second, threats to the lives of Deacons’ members required that secrecy be maintained to avoid terrorist attacks on their supporters, and they recruited mature and male members, in contrast to other more informal self-defense efforts in which women and teenagers also played a role. Finally, with the shift to Northern Black plight and the idea of Black Power emerging in major cities across America, the Deacons became yesterday’s news and organizations such as The Black Panther Party gained notoriety and became the publicized militant Black organization.
The tactics of the Deacons attracted the attention and concern of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Investigating the group over the years, the Bureau produced more than 1,500 pages of comprehensive and relatively accurate records on the Deacons, activities, largely through numerous informants close to or even inside the organization. Members of the Deacons were repeatedly questioned and intimidated by F.B.I. agents. One member, Harvie Johnson (the last surviving original member of the Deacons for Defense and Justice), was “interviewed” by two agents who asked only how the Deacons obtained their weapons, with no questions about Klan activity or police brutality ever asked. In February 1965, after a New York Times article about the Deacons, J. Edgar Hoover became interested in the group. Lance Hill offers Hoover’s reaction, which was sent to the field offices of the Bureau in Louisiana: “Because of the potential for violence indicated, you are instructed to immediately initiate an investigation of the DDJ [Deacons for Defense and Justice].” As was eventually exposed in the late 1970s, under its COINTELPRO program, the FBI was involved in many illegal activities to spy on and undermine organizations it deemed “a threat to the American way”. However, with the advent of other militant Black Power organizations, and the Black Power Movement becoming the more visible movement towards the latter 1960s, the involvement of the Deacons in the civil rights movement declined (as did FBI interference with them), with the presence of the Deacons all but vanishing by 1968.
Roy Innis has said that the Deacons “forced the Klan to re-evaluate their actions and often change their undergarments”, according to Ken Blackwell.
Thanks for posting this; I’d never heard of the Deacons. Acknowledging them certainly disrupts the narrative of blacks gaining civil rights thanks to their endless capacity for self-sacrifice which touched the conscience of whites permanently.
It instantly made me curious; what was the Deep South like for a young activist who’d been active since the 1950s in 1971? Did they all move north? Did they settle down to raise families in the new world they’d been fighting for? Did they switch towns an get new jobs an reminisce only in the privacy of their own homes? Or did they keep fighting but within the establishment?
Please excuse my ignorance, I ask as a foreigner.
Carolyn Moon said:
Thanks to Ray Winbush and to you–Asa for re-posting this commemoration of the Deacons For Defense and Justice. I remember them well and Robert Williams was mentioned but he was the forerunner of the Deacons who believed in self-defense in North Carolina in the late 50’s. He had to leave the country for some time but did return before his death in 1996.
“Mr. Williams had already started the Black Armed Guard to defend the local black community from racist activity. KKK membership numbered some 15,000 locally. Black residents fortified their homes with sandbags and trained to use rifles in the event of night raids by the Klan. He also trained them in using advanced weaponry.”
Those were horrendous times and blacks were killed and terrorized with impunity and ignored by traditional law enforcement on the local, state and national level.”
He called it “armed self-reliance” in the face of white terrorism. Mr. Williams was the forerunner of the Deacons and the latter (as was indicated) influenced The Black Panther Party.
Desperate times called for retaliatory responses….the folks they were up against; would and could not respect “Non-Violent Resistance”
Many laud the non-violent movement for their courage/strategies and I agree but what Robert Williams & The Deacons For Defense had to deal with in the south was far more heinous and required exceptional courage and determination as well. The enormity and despicable conditions of living in a hostile and virulent environment, to me, justified whatever was needed to protect those who were oppressed. The Black Panther Party had to deal with law enforcement terrorizing their communities as well as providing basic services to the residents. It is unfortunate and devastating that COINTELPRO and the frailties of the cadre; whom buckled under the strain of the times and engaged in behaviors that also led to the demise of the organization.
I hadn’t heard of the Deacons before but I had heard of Robert Williams. I have his book “Negroes with Guns”. Send a friend request to Ray Winbush on Facebook. He posts articles on African and African-American history practically everyday. I’ve gained lots of knowledge from his posts.
Carolyn Moon said:
Carolyn Moon said:
Thanks for the tip.