In America today, almost all citizens have equal civil rights under the law. Fifty years ago, it was a different story. In the 1960s, Southern states such as Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama witnessed racial segregation despite passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. White supremacist groups, mainly the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), continued to oppress and intimidate African Americans and civil rights activists, while local and state authorities watched and sometimes even participated. In his book “The Deacons of Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement” Lance Hill wrote, “severe repression by local authorities and the Klan, combined with economic pressure by white business elites, made it difficult to end segregation and discrimination even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, The Southern Christian Leadership Campaign (SCLC), The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and The Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) are the usual names associated with the Civil Rights Movement. Their strategy was to fight violence with non-violence; through peaceful protests and sometimes civil disobedience, they fought to combat inequality and oppression. What the stories and historians rarely mention is the crucial role of The Deacons of Defense and Justice (DDJ) during this period, especially in the battles against segregation.
The Deacons of Defense and Justice was an armed African American self-defense organization that was established in some Southern states. The DDJ was formed in Louisiana the summer of 1964 by Earnest Thomas and Frederick Douglas Kirkpatrick in Jonesboro, to protect civil rights workers from violent mobs and police brutality. The group’s philosophy was different from the mainstream Civil Rights Movement; they believed that African Americans should carry arms to protect themselves and the movement. This emphasis was particularly helpful due to the absence of federal enforcement of the Civil Rights Act in states like Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Public places like schools and libraries were still segregated. It was also difficult for African Americans to exercise their right to vote. African American voters, and groups that promoted voter registration, were harassed or attacked by local authorizes or the KKK. This was the main reason behind the formation of the DDJ: to ensure protection and support for the anti-segregation efforts.
The Deacons’ role was very important during this violent period. Its members guarded the CORE Freedom House, patrolled Black neighborhoods at night, and provided armed protection for CORE activists (which included whites). Their presence dissuaded violence in many situations. Lance Hill writes, “Deacons helped diffuse a potentially violent situation at a Jonesboro high school. When picketing Black students had a fire hose turned on them, DDJ members began loading shotguns in view of the police officers stationed at the school. Officers responded by turning away the fire trucks.” Adam Fairclough described this incident as the first time in the twentieth century an armed Black organization had successfully used weapons to defend a lawful protest against an attack by law enforcement. The DDJ also played a significant role in the 1966 March Against Fear when they provided security for the march from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi. It seems that The Deacons’ presence made African Americans feel safer and allowed more people to participate in the movement.
I hope that this post gives some of the missing credit to the unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. It was unfortunate to find little mention of Deacons for Defense and Justice in literature and stories on the movement. Their self-defense strategy was significant in ending violent activities such as burning crosses, bombing churches, harassing African-Americans, the disbandment of the KKK, and finally supporting the anti-segregation campaign. Lance Hill underlines the significance of their role in the following words “if the reality of armed self-defense didn’t exist, then the moral authority of protest and civil disobedience would have been insufficient to change the political and economical realities of the Jim Crow South.” In the end, activists keep giving and never wait for recognition. Each one of us has a part in the big picture of change; there are many more individuals and groups out there who have done miracles for change and the fight for equality. Lets not forget to shine a light on their efforts.
by Fatema Hayat