Deacons for Defense and Justice

The Deacons for Defense and Justice formed in the Deep South during the 1960s.The Deacons exercised armed self-defense and often operated in conjunction with other civil rights organizations. Local law enforcement, state authorities and the Ku Klux Klan often enforced Jim Crow laws with impunity in places where the federal government was ineffective or unable to intervene.

Larry Pratt points out that, although Hill does not deal with the lack of Scriptural support for segregation, Jim Crow laws and segregation were very clearly a set of laws in conflict with Scripture. Exodus 12:49 requires that the same law apply to everybody alike. The black self-defense group did not engage in any theological debates over whether the use of lethal force in self-defense is Biblical. (See Larry Pratt: What Does the Bible Say About Gun Control? The Deacons’ practical self-defense approach did not square with national leadership’s stated views on the direction to be taken by the Civil Rights Movement but nevertheless contributed immeasurably to the ultimate success of the larger civil rights effort.

“The goal of black self-determination and black self-identity—Black Power—is full participation in the decision-making processes affecting the lives of black people, and recognition of the virtues in themselves as black people.”

Stokely Carmichael wrote of the Deacons:

“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?”

Proponents of non-violence had previously protected themselves with guns. Fannie Lou Hammer confessed that she kept several loaded guns under her bed. Robert F. Williams armed his local NAACP branch. The NAACP and the federal government were not happy with Williams’ stance but Martin Luther King Jr. also employed armed bodyguards and had guns in his house during the early stages of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956.

The Klan strategy to intimidate African Americans included burning five churches, destroying a Masonic hall, a Baptist center, and murdering innocent victims- often women and children. Jonesboro, Louisiana was the scene of much of the violence in 1964.

Because of state and federal governments’ failure to protect African-Americans, men in Jonesboro, Louisiana, led by Earnest “Chilly Willy” Thomas and Frederick Douglas Kirkpatrick, founded the Deacons to protect civil rights workers, their communities and their families, against the Klan violence. The Jonesboro chapter later organized a Deacons chapter in Bogalusa, Louisiana.

The Jonesboro chapter initiated a regional organizing campaign and eventually formed 21 chapters in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The militant Deacons’ confronted the Klan in Bogalusa and forced the federal government to enforce the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Many of the original Deacons were war veterans with combat experience and the Deacons galvanized federal law enforcement by the very real threat that the Deacons would kill Klansmen in self-defense.

Ernest “Chilly Willy” Thomas understood that things were secured by force rather than moral appeal. 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 and others would guard the Jonesboro community in the day with their guns concealed and carried their guns openly during the cover of night to discouraged any type of Klan activity.

The Deacons became involved with the wider Civil Rights Movement during the 1966 March Against Fear. Stokely Carmichael urged that the Deacons be used as security for the march. Akinyele O. Umoja states, “Finally, though expressing reservations, King conceded to Carmichael’s proposals to maintain unity in the march and the movement. The involvement and association of the Deacons with the march signified a shift in the Civil Rights Movement, which had been popularly projected as a ‘nonviolent movement.”’

Akinyele O. Umoja suggests that ideological shifts in the movement were becoming apparent even before the March Against Fear. An alliance between CORE and the Deacons around 1965 and the support of armed self-defense by many southern-born Black people is a significant aspect of the civil rights movement that has been ignored by white and black historians. Additionally, a significant portion of SNCC supported armed self-defense. Local Southern blacks knew violence that was up close and personal. The national leadership, on the other hand, steered a wider agenda that included gaining support from Northern white liberals and mainstream media outlets.

The Deacons worked with other groups that practiced nonviolence and provided armed guards so that the NAACP and other groups could maintain their nonviolent stance. According to Lance Hill, author of The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement:

“The hard truth is that these organizations (i.e., SNCC, CORE, and SCLC) produced few victories in their local projects in the Deep South— if success is measured by the ability to force changes in local government policy and create self-governing and sustainable local organizations that could survive when the national organizations departed…The Deacons’ campaigns frequently resulted in substantial and unprecedented victories at the local level, producing real power and self-sustaining organizations.”

According to Hill, the Deacons were the true resistance that enforced civil rights in areas of the Deep South. Many times it was locally armed communities that laid the foundation of equal opportunity for African-Americans. National organizations played their role by exposing problems; local organizations and individuals implemented change and were not intimidated by whites who wanted to enforce and perpetuate segregation. Without these local organizations employing armed self-defense not much would have changed, according to Hill.

An example of how armed force changed the civil rights equation took place in early 1965. Black students picketed the local high school. They 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. Lance Hill observes that this was the first time in the Twentieth century “an armed black organization had successfully used weapons to defend a lawful protest against an attack by law enforcement.”

Another example from Hill:

“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 Deacons kept their membership secret to avoid terrorist attacks on their supporters. The tactics of the Deacons attracted the attention and concern of the FBI which produced more than 1,500 pages of relatively accurate records on the Deacon’s activities, largely through numerous informants close to or even inside the organization.

The information herein is a summary of an article about the Deacons at Wikipedia.

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