Because African-Americans were a convenient target in the 1950s and 1960s, the Ku Klux Klan — a white supremacist organization – had free rein, frightening and even murdering civil rights activists.
Many civil rights workers armed themselves for self-defense as a result of the constant attacks. During the 1950s, even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s home contained so many guns that one guest referred to it as an “arsenal.”
When it became evident that the Ku Klux Klan and local law enforcement organizations were working together to deny civil rights workers in some regions police protection, a group was formed to safeguard Black lives.
The Deacons for Defense and Justice was created on July 10, 1964, in Jonesboro, Louisiana, by a group of African-American men led by Earnest “Chilly Willy” Thomas and Frederick Douglas Kirkpatrick.
Members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) were to be protected against Ku Klux Klan assault.
The majority of the “Deacons” were World War II and Korean War veterans.
“In adjacent Bogalusa, Louisiana, the Jonesboro chapter created its first affiliate chapter, led by Charles Sims, A.Z. Young, and Robert Hicks. In Louisiana, they eventually formed a third chapter. The Deacons’ heated standoff with the Klan in Bogalusa was essential in convincing the federal government to intervene on behalf of the local African American community. The national exposure they received prompted state and federal officials to launch measures to eliminate the Ku Klux Klan in that part of the Deep South.”
Because the majority of them were practicing Christians, they chose the name “Deacons for Defense and Justice” to reflect their desire to serve their communities in a Christian manner.
“The defense of civil rights, property rights, and personal rights… and defend these rights by any and all honorable and lawful methods to the aim that justice may be attained,” the group’s corporate charter stated.
The Deacons patrolled black communities at night, communicating using Citizens Band radios and walkie-talkies. CORE worked closely with the Deacons, and the Deacons’ energy and pride soon helped Jonesboro become one of CORE’s best-organized communities.
“The Deacons were one of the first visible self-defense teams in the area, and they were effective in protecting local African Americans who wanted to register to vote, as well as white and black civil rights workers.” They helped secure the 1966 March Against Fear from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi, for example. Furthermore, their presence in Southeastern Louisiana meant that the Klan’s ability to intimidate and terrorize local African Americans was no longer unchallenged,” according to a report.
The Bogalusa Deacons provided security for civil rights activists’ residences and rallies. A Klansman was killed in one gunfight, while another Klansman was treated two states away, in an Alabama hospital, to hide police collaboration with the Klan.
“And when students at Jackson High School in Jonesboro were boycotting classes and picketing the school, demanding an end to racist practices such as Black students being barred from taking auto mechanics classes, and the local police, working with the KKK, cordoned off the school, surrounding the defenseless students, ready to spray the protesters with fire hoses, the armed Deacons came to the rescue.”
When Bogalusa’s mayor grudgingly acceded to the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 on May 23, resulting in the hire of the town’s first black deputy sheriff, the Klan retaliated with an aggressive counteroffensive, leading to the murder of the new deputy only a few days after his appointment.
The deputy’s funeral was arranged on June 9, with CORE’s James Farmer (national chairman from 1942 to 1944) expected to address. Farmer was welcomed at the New Orleans airport by four Deacons for Defense after police alerted him that the Klan was plotting to murder him while he was in Louisiana. They drove him 65 miles to Bogalusa, armed with firearms. “Core is peaceful, but we have no right to tell Negroes in Bogalusa or anywhere else that they don’t have the right to defend their houses,” the appreciative Farmer subsequently told the press. It’s a right guaranteed by the Constitution.”
The deputy’s burial was attended by about 50 Deacons, who effectively deterred any would-be attackers. Deacons chapters had spread across Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama by the end of June.
A cavalcade of 25 Klan cars raced through a black neighborhood in Bogalusa on a sweltering July night, yelling horrible comments at women and hurling racist insults. The Klansmen then opened fire on some homes at random. To the Klansmen’s surprise, they were met with a barrage of retaliation fire. In terror, the Klan members sped away.
“They finally realized we were men,” one Deacon leader recalled, “and that we would do what we said and mean what we said.”
The National Rifle Association of America (NRA) backed the Deacons and sold them ammo in bulk. Shotguns and handguns were the Deacons’ primary weapons at first. Attempts were made throughout time to equip the Deacons with .30-cal. M-1 carbines and .38 Special revolvers.
During a march in the spring of 1966, an older black man died of a heart attack. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. chose to preach at the man’s burial in the Mississippi delta, and he enlisted the help of Charles Sims and the Deacons as escorts. Similarly, Dr. King used the Chicago chapter of the Deacons for security at times.
“When Bogalusa Junior High integrated in the fall of 1966, white students constantly beat up black students until the black students started fighting back. When they did, armed members of the Ku Klux Klan showed up at the school. The Deacons, on the other hand, arrived with their own weapons. With the cops in the way, the Klan pulled out their weapons first, followed by the Deacons. The Klansmen, unfortunately, withdrew. “The attacks on black students had come to a halt.”
The Deacons had become so popular by the late 1960s that they were no longer required. The civil rights movement’s victories, as well as the long-awaited criminal indictments of violent Klansmen, had substantially lessened the threats that civil rights activists faced.
The Deacons began a regional organizing push, establishing 21 recognized chapters and 46 affiliates across the country.
The Deacons’ spirit of armed self-defense meant that white racists could no longer attack blacks without consequence.
The Deacons’ plan and tactics drew the attention and concern of the Federal Bureau of Inquiry (FBI), which launched an investigation into the group’s operations. However, following the 1965 Watts Riot, more powerful black power organizations such as US and the Black Panther Party arose, and the investigation came to a halt.
Following the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the entry of blacks into politics in the South, and the advent of the Black Power movement, the Deacons’ activities began to wane by 1968. Black people worked hard to obtain more political and economic power in their communities.
A documentary titled “Deacons for Defense” was released in 2003 about the Deacons’ work.