The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement

Article excerpt

The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement. By Lance Hill. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. Pp. x, 363. Acknowledgments, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $34.95.)

Lance Hill declares that, contrary to conventional wisdom, violence by angry African Americans was as important as nonviolence in achieving the victories of the civil rights movement. To illustrate his thesis, he tells the history of a nearly-forgotten group of black vigilantes known as the Deacons for Defense and Justice. The Deacons, he argues, added legitimacy and direction to a violent impulse that had long existed, mostly dormant, in the southern black community.

The author makes his case with some persuasiveness. He has done prodigious research-he even unearthed a magazine article that I once wrote on the Deacons-and lays it out clearly. He writes with the passion of an old political activist, which he is. He and some friends were instrumental in derailing the political ambitions of David Duke, the neoNazi and former Klansman, during the early 1990s in Louisiana. His early work in labor organizing and leftist causes led him to look into the Ku Klux Klan, and that led to an interest in the organization that, in his view, was most responsible for busting the Klan-the Deacons.

Hill's book fills what appears to have been an empty spot in the overall history of the civil rights movement. I reported on the Deacons briefly for the New York Times during the 1960s and thought I had a grasp of the subject. His book tells me how much larger and more interesting the story was.

If nothing else, the book is worthwhile for reminding us of the savagery unleashed against black southerners during the 1960s. Massive resistance by whites to black advances was in the newspapers every day during the 1950s and 1960s, mainly as a political story. Governors and congressmen fertilized their careers by standing up to the iniquitous federal tyrants, as they portrayed them, on court-ordered desegregation of schools and other facilities. But on a baser level, the cutting edge of the resistance was not verbal. It was brutal and physical. The Ku Klux Klan employed the rankest terrorism across the Black Belt of the Deep South, most effectively in what amounted to a Klan nation in southwestern Mississippi and southeastern Louisiana. Nightriders not only wore sheets and burned crosses, they shot, kidnapped, beat, and not infrequently killed black people who had the temerity to stand up for their rights. Often, they did it with the complicity of law enforcement officers. In Louisiana mill towns like Jonesboro and Bogalusa, the Klan literally ruled.

The Deacons began in Jonesboro in 1964. At first, there were only a few military veterans who decided to protect nonviolent civil rights organizers from harassment by white youths. But when a caravan of more than fifty carloads of Klansmen-led by a police car-drove through the black neighborhood one July evening, simply to strike fear and remind people who was in charge, the Deacons formally organized. …