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  • The Deacons for Defense

  • The Deacons armed


    and the

    civil rights


    Lance Hill

  • for Defense

    The University of North Carolina Press Chapel Hill and London

  • ∫ 2004 The University of North Carolina Press

    All rights reserved

    Manufactured in the United States of America

    Designed by Jacquline Johnson

    Set in Charter by Keystone Typesetting, Inc.

    The paper in this book meets the guidelines for

    permanence and durability of the Committee on

    Production Guidelines for Book Longevity of the

    Council on Library Resources.

    Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

    Hill, Lance E. (Lance Edward), 1950–

    The Deacons for Defense : armed resistance and

    the civil rights movement / Lance Hill.

    p. cm.

    Includes bibliographical references and index.

    isbn 0-8078-2847-5 (alk. paper)

    1. Deacons for Defense and Justice—History.

    2. African American civil rights workers—

    Louisiana—Jonesboro—History—20th century.

    3. Self-defense—Political aspects—Southern

    States—History—20th century. 4. Political

    violence—Southern States—History—20th century.

    5. Ku Klux Klan (1915– )—History—20th century.

    6. African Americans—Civil rights—Southern

    States—History—20th century. 7. Civil rights

    movements—Southern States—History—20th

    century. 8. Southern States—Race relations.

    9. Louisiana—Race relations. 10. Mississippi—Race

    relations. I. Title.

    e185.615.h47 2004

    323.1196%073%009046—dc22 2003021779

    08 07 06 05 04 5 4 3 2 1

  • For Eileen

  • Contents

    Acknowledgments ix

    Introduction 1

    1 Beginnings 10

    2 The Deacons Are Born 30

    3 In the New York Times 52

    4 Not Selma 63

    5 On to Bogalusa 78

    6 The Bogalusa Chapter 96

    7 The Spring Campaign 108

    8 With a Single Bullet 129

    9 Victory 150

    10 Expanding in the Bayou State 165

    11 Mississippi Chapters 184

    12 Heading North 216

    13 Black Power—Last Days 234

    Conclusion: The Myth of Nonviolence 258

    Notes 275

    Bibliography 335

    Index 353

    A section of photographs appears after p. 107.

  • Acknowledgments

    i first learned of the Deacons for Defense and Justice while attending a meeting of activists in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, in 1984. I had moved to rural Louisiana in 1979 and initially worked not far from Bogalusa as a welder and an industrial organizer. At the meeting in Plaquemines Parish—once the stronghold of arch-racist Leander Perez—I met one of the founders of the Deacons, Frederick Douglas Kirkpatrick. From my first meeting with Kirkpatrick, I decided that the history of this remarkable group of courageous men needed to be told.

    Several people offered thoughtful and stimulating reactions to this book and deserve a great deal of thanks. Foremost is Lawrence N. Powell, for his indispensable advice, perceptive criticism, and steadfast encouragement. Adam Fairclough, Michael Honey, and Tim Tyson provided challenging criti- cisms and invaluable advice, which greatly benefited the final manuscript. Patrick Maney, Rosanne Adderley, and Kim Harris all read earlier drafts and offered many useful and illuminating insights. I have also learned much from long conversations over the years with my colleague Plater Robinson.

    Tulane University’s History Department made my research possible through several teaching assistantships and travel and research grants. I am especially indebted to Gwendolyn Midlo Hall for her professional assistance and expansive generosity. Gwen allowed me to consult her research papers on the Deacons for Defense and Justice at the Amistad Research Center, and has been an endless source of information on the left and black nationalist movements. Many friends and archivists aided me in obtaining materials, among them Tyler Bridges, Katherine Nachod, Annie Purnell Johnson, and Brenda Square. David Perry, Paula Wald, and Stevie Champion at the Uni- versity of North Carolina Press made this book possible through their wise advice and skillful editing.

    Writing a book about a semiclandestine organization poses some unique problems. The Deacons left no written records, and save for the fbi files and news reports, the real history of the organization resides in the collective

  • x Acknowledgments

    memories of its members. This book would not have been possible had it not been for the members of the Deacons for Defense and Justice who shared with me their stories and wisdom.

    My three children, Lisa, John, and Joel, admirably suffered a father who spent too many sunny days hunched over a dimly lit keyboard. My grandson Cody Robertson was an inspiration through his love of history—and diesel trucks. And my parents, Herbert and Gaye Hill, have always been accepting and supportive through trying times. Finally, I am deeply grateful to my wife, Eileen San Juan, who has provided years of intellectual companionship and moral support, and lent her critical eye to reading this manuscript. I have dedicated the book to her, though such a symbolic act is a pittance for her love and encouragement.

  • The Deacons for Defense

  • Introduction

    paul farmer had brought his pistol. The president of the Washington Parish White Citizens Council was standing in the middle of the street along with several other members of the council and the local Ku Klux Klan. It was the autumn of 1966 in the small paper mill town of Boga- lusa, Louisiana.

    Royan Burris, a black barber and civil rights leader, knew why the Klans- men were there. They were waiting for the doors to open at Bogalusa Junior High. The school had recently been integrated, and white students had been harassing and brutalizing black students with impunity. ‘‘They were just stepping on them, and spitting on them and hitting them,’’ recalled Burris, and the black students ‘‘wasn’t doing anything back.’’ In the past Burris had counseled the black students to remain nonviolent. Now he advised a new approach. ‘‘I said anybody hit you, hit back. Anybody step on your feet, step back. Anybody spit on you, spit back.’’∞

    The young black students heeded Burris’s advice. Fights between black and white students erupted at the school throughout the day. Now Paul Farmer and his band of Klansmen had arrived with guns, prepared to inter- vene. Their presence was no idle threat; whites had murdered two black men in the mill town in the past two years, including a sheriff ’s deputy.

    But Farmer had a problem. Standing in the street, only a few feet from the Klan, was a line of grim, unyielding black men. They were members of the Deacons for Defense and Justice, a black self-defense organization that had already engaged the Klan in several shooting skirmishes. The two groups faced off: the Klansmen on one side, the Deacons on the other.

    After a few tense moments the police arrived and attempted to defuse the volatile situation. They asked the Deacons to leave first, but the black men refused. Burris recalled the Deacons’ terse response to the police request. ‘‘We been leaving first all of our lives,’’ said Burris. ‘‘This time we not going in peace.’’ Infuriated by the Deacons’ defiance, Farmer suddenly pulled his pistol. In a reflex response, one of the Deacons drew his revolver, and in an

  • 2 Introduction

    instant half a dozen pistols were waving menacingly in the air. Surveying the weapons arrayed against them, the Klansmen grudgingly pocketed their own guns and departed.≤

    The Deacons for Defense and Justice had faced death and never flinched. ‘‘From that day forward,’’ said Burris, ‘‘we didn’t have too many more problems.’’≥

    In 1964 a clandestine armed self-defense organization formed in the black community in Jonesboro, Louisiana, with the goal of protecting civil rights activists from the Ku Klux Klan and other racist vigilantes. After several months of relatively secret operations, the group publicly surfaced in Febru- ary 1965 under the name ‘‘Deacons for Defense and Justice.’’ By the end of 1966, the Deacons had grown to twenty-one chapters with several hundred members concentrated in Louisiana and Mississippi. The Deacons guarded marches, patrolled the black community to ward off night riders, engaged in shoot-outs with Klansmen, and even defied local police in armed con- frontations. When the u.s. Justice Department faltered in enforcing the Civil Rights Act, the Deacons’ militant politics and armed actions forced a pivotal showdown in Bogalusa between the government and southern segregationists.

    Although the Deacons began as a simple self-defense guard to compensate for the lack of police protection, they soon developed into a highly visible political organization with a clear and compelling alternative to the pacifist strategies promoted by national civil rights organizations. They were not the first blacks to practice or advocate armed self-defense. Throughout the civil rights movement, African Americans frequently guarded themselves and their communities against vigilante assaults. But until the Deacons emerged, these armed self-defense efforts were almost always conducted by informal and disconnected covert groups that avoided open confrontations with au- thority and purposefully eschewed publicity—in part because th