The Deacons for Defense
The University of North Carolina Press Chapel Hill and London
∫ 2004 The University of North Carolina Press
All rights reserved
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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.
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—
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
century. 8. Southern States—Race relations.
9. Louisiana—Race relations. 10. Mississippi—Race
relations. I. Title.
08 07 06 05 04 5 4 3 2 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
A section of photographs appears after p. 107.
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
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
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-
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
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
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
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