Deacons for Defense and Justice
The Deacons for Defense and Justice was a group founded in Jonesboro, Louisiana, in 1964 to organize men to guard the homes of activists and to protect them while they traveled. A second branch was started in Bogalusa, Louisiana, the following year. African Americans knew they could not rely on local law enforcement for protection. Martin Luther King Jr. himself, after the fire bombing of his home, kept weapons in his house to protect his family.
The success of the movement for African American civil rights across the South in the 1960s has largely been credited to activists who adopted the strategy of nonviolent protest. Leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Jim Lawson, and John Lewis believed wholeheartedly in this philosophy as a way of life, and studied how it had been used successfully by Mahatma Gandhi to protest inequality in India. They tried to literally “love your enemies” and practiced pacifism in all circumstances.
But other activists were reluctant to devote their lives to nonviolence, and instead saw it as simply a tactic that could be used at marches and sit-ins to gain sympathy for their cause and hopefully change the attitudes of those who physically attacked them. First published in 1962, "Negroes with Guns" is the story of a southern black community's struggle to arm itself in self-defense against the Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups. Frustrated and angered by violence condoned or abetted by the local authorities against blacks, the small community of Monroe, North Carolina, brought the issue of armed self-defense to the forefront of the civil rights movement. The single most important intellectual influence on Huey P. Newton, the founder of the Black Panther Party, "Negroes with Guns" is a classic story of a man who risked his life for democracy and freedom.
The Deacons for Defense and Justice was founded in 1964 in Jonesboro, Louisiana to protect civil rights activists from the Ku Klux Klan. The organization was made up of black veterans from World War II, who believed in armed self-defense. The Deacons for Defense provided protection for people participating in protest marches in Mississippi in 1966.
In 1964 a small group of African American men in Jonesboro, Louisiana, defied the nonviolence policy of the mainstream civil rights movement and formed an armed self-defense organization -- the Deacons for Defense and Justice -- to protect movement workers from vigilante and police violence. With their largest and most famous chapter at the center of a bloody campaign in the Ku Klux Klan stronghold of Bogalusa, Louisiana, the Deacons became a popular symbol of the growing frustration with Martin Luther King Jr.'s nonviolent strategy and a rallying point for a militant working-class movement in the South. This working-class armed self-defense movement that defied the entrenched nonviolent leadership and played a crucial role in compelling the federal government to neutralize the Klan and uphold civil rights and liberties.
Attorney General Ramsey Clark stated on 14 November 1967: "An emerging defiance of law to demonstrate dissent or to disrupt is often a cause more of inconvenience than of injury. It has rarely elevated human dignity or the worth of the individual. Perhaps more significantly it lends to an atmosphere of contempt for social stability. Extremist groups of the right and left -- the Ku Klux Klan, the Minutemen, the Revolutionary Action Movement, Deacons for Defense and Justice -- present another face of lawlessness. Capable of violence and intimidation, they are a concern to law enforcement and a threat to the public. "
One Deacon, Fletcher Anderson, was born in 1938 in Bogalusa, Louisiana, married Cynthia Baker and had three children. He graduated from Central Memorial High School and worked at the Crown Zellerbach paper mill in many jobs, eventually as an overhead crane operator. He joined the Deacons of Defense and Justice and the Bogalusa Voters League, and was a leader of the Civil Rights Movement in Bogalusa.
Fletcher Anderson later recalled "James Meredith got jumped on when he was going back to Ole Miss [University of Mississippi] for a reunion of some sort. And we were asked as the Deacons to come and protect the march. And from the time that we got there, we was able to march them in with no incident after that. And that was during the time, because we were very good at what we did, protecting people. We protected our neighborhoods that stopped people from driving by, shooting up in their houses and beating them. We had walkie-talkies. We had things that communicate with one another all through the community. We’d know where everybody was at. We’d know if - we had block captains. We had everything set where anything - if anybody come in there, we were able to block the streets off. Because we have to be - we had to be our own protection, because the police were not there to protect us....
"We’ve all been hunters. We’ve all been hunters. We know how to hunt. We know how to take care of weapons. We know all of that. But that’s the onliest reason we - I had never shot at a person or nothing like that, because we never dared. We always were law-abiding citizens....
"The fear is gone out of black people of the Ku Klux Klan. That fear is gone. There is no more fear there. The Deacons took the fear out of it, because they taught them that the same [clears throat] bullet [1:20:00] that will kill you is the same bullet that will kill somebody else. There’s no difference. There’s no difference. But it also shows you that you don’t look for trouble; all you do is protect yourself. Protect yourself...."
Willie Elliot Jenkins was born December 7, 1952. He participated in the Civil Rights Movement in Bogalusa, Louisiana, and integrated the public schools. He later recalled " ... all the guys there, all of them were strong black men, you know, and they stood – they just had a belief that you stood up to stuff, you know. And they would all gather and they was always good to the kids. You know, they was good, but, now, they were strong and they would do things that they had to do."
Barbara Collins, the daughter of activist Robert Hicks, reflects on her father’s position on armed self-defense in an interview with the family: “And my dad always said, ‘What kind of man –?’ You know, Martin Luther King was a good man. He had a dream. But my Daddy fought for the dream. And it was his right to fight for the dream. You have a Constitutional right, and that’s what Daddy said, ‘I have a right to bear arms. And if I need to protect my family,’ especially when the police did not protect us, then he had a right to do that. The Deacons had a right to carry the guns.”
Toni Breaux was born April 10 1947 in Bogalusa, Louisiana. She attended Dillard University, BA; Southeastern Louisiana University, M.Ed. and worked as a teacher. She later recalled "... even when we marched, the men would always be like in the front and on the sides, and they put the women in the middle, and that was for the protection of the women. ... The Deacons – I think the Deacons for Defense is what saved Bogalusa, because they were afraid. I mean, when you mentioned the Deacons of Defense, white people were afraid of the Deacons for Defense. They really and truly were.... "
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