Monday, May 31, 2010

Deacons Largely Uncredited For Defense Of Civil Rights

Deacons Largely Uncredited For Defense Of Civil Rights
When James Meredith began a 220-mile March Against Fear from Memphis to Jackson, Miss., in June 1966 to promote black voter registration, he was shot and wounded by a sniper. With Meredith hospitalized, other civil rights leaders decided to continue the march, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokley Carmichael (later Kwame Ture).

The Deacons for Defense and Justice were among those providing protection as the march resumed. The Deacons of Defense, to use the common name, was an armed group of black men that believed in fighting back rather than nonviolent acceptance in the face of racist attacks.

Carmichael suggested the Deacons be used for security because local and state law officers could not be trusted. (Ku Klux Klansmen, White Citizens’ Council members and law enforcement officers were often one and the same.) King had reservations about what he called the Deacons’ “aggressive violence,” and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP also expressed concern. But a compromise was reached for the sake of unity in the march and the movement and the Deacons were able to serve.

One of the most prominent members of the Deacons for Defense, Robert Hicks, died last month in his hometown of Bogalusa, La., at age 81. He was one of the group’s last survivors. Hicks and two friends organized the Deacons’ Bogalusa chapter in 1965, less than a year after Earnest Thomas and Frederick Douglas Kilpatrick founded the group in Jonesboro, La.

Hicks became actively involved in self-defense after he was tipped off that a band of Klansmen was planning to bomb his house because he had provided lodging for two white civil rights workers. Hicks, an employee of a local paper mill, sent his children to stay with neighbors, called friends and asked them to bring their weapons. Heavily armed, the men waited. Word apparently filtered out and the Klan did not show up. Hicks and his friends continued as gun-carrying activists. He filed suits against Jim Crow laws and fought racist hiring practices at the mill where he worked. The Deacons eventually formed more than 60 chapters, even one in Boston.

The March Against Fear and the ascendancy of the Deacons for Defense is seen by some observers as one of the signal events that helped redefine the character of the civil rights movement to the extent that nonviolent protestors and gun-carrying defenders were able to create an uneasy alliance.

Carmichael said of the Deacons, “Here is a group which realized that the ‘law’ and law enforcement agencies would not protect people, so they had to do it themselves…. The Deacons and all other blacks who resort to self-defense represent a simple answer to a simple question: What man would not defend his family and home from attack?”

As gains were made and nonviolence became the accepted strategy, the Deacons became marginalized, but continued as a group until 1968. Some of their exploits are told in “Deacons for Defense,” a 2003 TV movie, starring Forest Whitaker and Ossie Davis.

Although the civil rights movement is generally thought of as fundamentally nonviolent, there are many whose pugnacious presence looms large on the scene. Among them were Fannie Lou Hamer and Robert Williams. Hamer, one of the leaders of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, was not reluctant to disclose that she kept several loaded guns in her bedroom. Williams operated an armed unit within the Monroe (N.C.) NAACP Branch he headed (to the dismay of the national office) until he was hounded by the FBI and moved first to Cuba and then to China. He later said, “To us there was no such thing as the Constitution, no such thing as moral persuasion. The only thing left was the bullet.”

(George E. Hardin worked as a photographer, reporter and editor, and in public relations during a long career before he retired. His column appears every other week.)

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