8/04 Deacons For Defense

Deacons For Defense

Larry Pratt

A little-known episode in American history has been snatched from oblivion by Tulane University Professor Lance Hill. He has documented the pivotal events of the civil rights movement in his book, The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement published by the University of North Carolina Press.

Hill makes it clear that the civil rights movement would have been wiped out in the south by the Ku Klux Klan if it had not been for the Deacons. Before the rise of the Deacons for Defense and Justice (their full name), the prevailing ideology of the movement was a product of the white liberals in the north who had no concept of the terrorism the Klan could unleash.

The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Campaign (SCLC — Martin Luther King’s organization) were all proponents of meeting violence with pacifism. Jesse Jackson, then an aide to King, drank so deeply from this pacifistic well, that he is still (along with most of the black leadership in the US) anti self-defense and a supporter of gun control.

Some argued that if Ghandi could throw off British colonialism in India with a pacifistic strategy, it should work in the U.S. Hill points out that the British were ruling from afar and the English working class had no direct investment in maintenance of the empire. But in the south, everything was up close and personal. The Klan was part of a community, many of whom felt directly threatened by the elimination of segregation’s two sets of laws — one for blacks, the other for whites.

By the way, although Hill does not deal with the biblical aspect of segregation, it was very clearly a set of laws in conflict with Scripture. Exodus 12:49 requires that the same law apply to everybody alike. And in spite of the name, Deacons, the black self-defense group did not engage in any theological debates over whether the use of lethal force in self defense is biblical. (It is biblical: see my What Does the Bible Say About Gun Control? found at http://www.gunowners.org/fs9902.htm.)

The Deacons first emerged as a visible self-defense force in Jonesboro, LA. From the very beginning the Deacons represented a new force in the civil rights movement — leadership had passed from white northern liberals (and blacks who bought into that liberalism) to southern working class blacks who lived in the very communities where the Deacons were active.

The spring and summer of 1964 was a time of growing anti-segregation demonstrations in Jonesboro. The Klan responded at one point with a menacing parade through the black section of town – led by the chief of police. The Deacons informed the chief that if that happened again, “there would be some killing going on.” The Klan never did that again.

Cross burning ended suddenly the night that a cross was set on fire in front of a clergyman’s house. Shots rang out aimed at the Klan as the torch touched the cross. The Klan departed and never repeated that trick.

Hill found that the Deacons did not take just anybody into their ranks for this rather “high octane” volunteer work. They screened the applicants to make sure they were getting men who could handle the pressure and not go off half cocked.

During a desegregation effort at the Jonesboro High School, the authorities brought up fire trucks and prepared to hose the black students attempting to enter the school. The Deacons pulled up and four men publicly loaded shotguns and then made it plain that the lead was for the firemen if they turned the hoses on. The firemen wisely beat a retreat.

This was a very significant event. This was a self-defense effort in the spirit of the American War for Independence. The government was attempting to exercise illegitimate power (enforcing an unbiblical law which by this time also violated federal law) and it was repulsed by the use of community force — by the militia, if you will.

The Deacons were in the great tradition of American freedom — liberty is not given by tyrants and thugs, it is wrested from their hands by force.

Jonesboro saw one more exercise of defensive force before the Klan was finally convinced that they could not intimidate the black community. When Deacon Elmo Jacobs was driving a carload of white civil rights workers, they were fired upon and took a load of buckshot in the door of Jacobs’ car. Jacobs returned fire and the Klan attack ended immediately — and for good.

In Bogalusa, LA, Hill found that the police made no attempt to stop the attacks and in fact took pains to arrest blacks who had armed themselves in self defense. In other words, gun control was simply a tool of people control and had nothing to do with fighting crime. Had crime control been the concern, plenty of opportunities had come and gone to arrest the Klan.

FBI agent Frank Hicks warned Bogalusa blacks that any self-defense shooting by a black — of a white — would result in an arrest for murder. He did not explain where the FBI had any legal or constitutional authority for such a move, but the Deacons were not interested in a scholarly debate. They simply told Hicks that self defense is a constitutional right. Hicks got the message.

A lethal moment in Bogalusa shocked the Klan into the realization that blacks were no longer chattel punching bags. During a 1965 summer desegregation demonstration, white hecklers turned violent and threw a brick which struck Hattie Mae Hill. The white mob surrounded the car the Deacons were using to attempt an evacuation of the terrified girl.

As the mob threatened to break into the car, Deacon Henry Austin shouted that he had a gun. Then he fired a warning shot from his .38 into the air. The mob kept closing in. Austin then fired almost point blank into the chest of Alton Crowe who was in the front of the mob. While Crowe survived, the fun of beating up on blacks died that afternoon in Bogalusa.

All the white liberals in the north and their black allies, with all their clucking that defensive violence would only provoke more violence, had failed to get the feds to enforce their civil rights laws. Henry Austin and the Deacons succeeded. After all, if the police and the National Guard had not been mobilized, there might have been harm to Klansmen.

The battle raged for another year or so, but the Jonesboro and Bogalusa resistance efforts proved to be the turning point. Klan meetings became more likely to involve admiration of a colleague’s tooth than to plot a terrorist act that might get Klansmen killed.



Second Amendment attorney Don Kates showed this column to a friend of his who is a Yale law professor in 2005. In the 1960’s, he was an eye witness to the effectiveness of the Deacons for Defense, as this note to Don Kates states.


I was in New Orleans in August 1965, working as a just-graduated law student with the black law firm (Collins, Douglas, & Elie) who represented CORE. When I and a few other whites went to Bogalusa to help the bogalusa Voters League stage a protest march there, we were met outside of town by the Deacons and escorted to the BVL staging area by a black man in a pickup truck equipped with a shotgun prominently displayed, and although we were followed by whites who knew what we were there for, they did not stop our truck, presumably because they knew we were armed. We proceeded with the march amid much heckling, threats, and verbal abuse by the crowds of whites lining the route but the Deacons maintained order while the local police stood by brandishing weapons that could have been used against us rather than against the mob. I shall never forget the pride, courage, and hospitality displayed by the black community there, threatened by their townsmen but protected by their own Deacons. I have no doubt that their weapons had something to do with it