by Dave Kopel
While many anti-gunners want to make the debate over the Second Amendment a racial one, a look back at our nation’s history can be an eye opener on that issue.
Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy marked this year’s Martin Luther King Day with an appreciative column about the Deacons for Defense and Justice. The Deacons were the armed black men of the Civil Rights Movement from 1964 to 1966. Like the great men who fought at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, the Deacons are true American heroes.
Milloy interviewed Charles Hicks, son of Deacons public relations director Robert Hicks. The younger Hicks recalled, “You shoot at us, we shoot back at you. I’m convinced that without our guns, my family and many other black people would not be alive today.”
Milloy concluded, “Infringe on the Second Amendment? No way, say 30 percent of African Americans (myself included), according to a recent Pew poll. No doubt many of them believe, like Hicks, that it’s better to have a gun and not need it than not have one and wish you did.”
Today, the principles of the Deacons for Defense and Justice are carried forward by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Founded in 1942, CORE is one of America’s most venerable civil rights organizations. Its national chairman, Roy Innis, also serves on the NRA Board of Directors, and CORE has participated in many civil rights lawsuits seeking to vindicate Second Amendment rights.
So who were the Deacons for Defense and Justice?
In the South in the 1950s and 1960s, civil rights supporters were terrorized, and even murdered, by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Many civil rights workers armed themselves for self-protection. During the 1950s, the home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had so many guns that one visitor called it an “arsenal.”
Adding to the danger was the unspoken cooperation that sometimes existed between the perpetrators of this violent oppression and local law enforcement agencies. Police protection simply was not an option for civil rights workers in some areas.
In 1964, CORE began community organizing in the pine mill town of Jonesboro, La. One night, the local police led a Klan motorcade through black neighborhoods, strewing Klan flyers, and then heading to the local jail to threaten imprisoned civil rights workers.
That summer, about 20 black Army veterans had informally founded a community defense patrol. They adopted the name “Deacons for Defense and Justice” because most of them were practicing Christians, and they aimed to serve their communities in a Christian manner.
The Deacons conducted nighttime auto patrols of black neighborhoods, communicating via Citizens Band radios and walkie-talkies. CORE worked closely with the Deacons, and soon, the energy and pride provided by the Deacons had helped make Jonesboro one of CORE’s best-organized towns.
Inspired by the visible public presence of boldly armed men, the attitudes of blacks in Jonesboro began to change. Black housekeepers stopped accepting racial taunts, and quit if the taunts continued. “Armed Negroes Make Jonesboro Unusual Town,” observed a Feb. 21, 1965, New York Times article.
On the day the Times article was published, a second chapter was formed—this one in Bogalusa, La., another mill town, and a notorious Klan stronghold. The Bogalusa chapter’s president, Charles Sims, said, “Let’s back up the Constitution of the United States and say we can bear arms. We have a right to defend ourselves. …”
On March 8 of that year, the Deacons for Defense and Justice formally incorporated as a Louisiana non-profit organization. The corporate charter explained that the group’s purpose was “the defense of civil rights, property rights and personal rights … and [to] defend said rights by any and all honorable and legal means to the end that justice may be obtained.” Just like April 19—the first battle of the American Revolution—March 8 is a day that should be forever celebrated to honor armed Americans who defended liberty.
The next week, CORE President James Farmer announced that Jonesboro and Bogalusa were now two crucial organizing targets. In Bogalusa, core and the Deacons were nominally separate, but in practice were the same organization. The Bogalusa Deacons guarded the homes of civil rights leaders and protected rallies. One gun battle led to the death of a Klansman, with another Klansman being treated two states away, at an Alabama hospital, to conceal police complicity with the Klan.
At the same time, students at Jackson High School in Jonesboro were boycotting classes and picketing the school—demanding an end to racist practices, such as the prohibition on black students taking classes in auto mechanics. The local police, in collaboration with the KKK, cordoned off the school, surrounding the defenseless students. Fire hoses were brought in, ready to spray the protesters. But violence was deterred when the armed Deacons arrived on the scene.
The next month, Deacon Elmo Jacobs was giving a ride to four white civil rights workers from the University of Kansas. Another car pulled alongside, and a passenger in that car fired a shotgun into the door of Jacobs’ vehicle. Jacobs returned fire. Never again did anyone in Jonesboro dare to try to shoot a civil rights activist.
In Bogalusa that spring, protests, tensions and violence escalated. On May 23, Bogalusa’s mayor announced the repeal of the town’s segregation laws, reluctantly acceding to the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. The town then hired its first black deputy sheriff. The Klan responded with an aggressive counteroffensive, and the new deputy was murdered only a few days later.
The deputy’s funeral was set for June 9, and CORE’s James Farmer was scheduled to speak at the service. The police warned Farmer that the Klan was plotting to assassinate him while he was in Louisiana, so four Deacons for Defense met him at the New Orleans airport. Armed with their handguns, they drove him 65 miles to Bogalusa. The grateful Farmer later told the press, “CORE is nonviolent, but we have no right to tell Negroes in Bogalusa or anywhere else that they do not have the right to defend their homes. It’s a constitutional right.”
Farmer further explained:
“Understand, the Deacons don’t replace legal law enforcement—there is no such thing as a legal law enforcement in much of the South that will protect a Negro citizen.”
About 50 Deacons attended the deputy’s funeral, successfully deterring any would-be attackers. And by the end of June, Deacons chapters had spread in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
Meanwhile, Bogalusa was reaching a boiling point, as civil rights activists refused politicians’ requests to cease their marches and demonstrations. During a July 8 protest, a black girl was injured with a brick to the head. The car that was taking her to the hospital was attacked by a mob, and one man in the mob was shot by a Deacon in the car. A black man had shot a white man in broad daylight, and no arrest was made. Nobody could remember when such a thing had happened. It was a turning point in the history of the South.
On July 14, the Bogalusa mayor announced that an emergency ordinance for gun confiscation had been drafted. Civil rights groups led protest marches, and Bogalusa residents lined up 15 deep in department stores to buy guns.
On a hot July night, a cavalcade of 25 Klan automobiles drove through a black neighborhood in Bogalusa, shouting vile comments at women and spewing racial insults. Some Klansmen then randomly fired into some houses. To the Klansmen’s shock, the response was a fusillade of return fire. The Klan members sped away in fear.
“They finally found out that we really are men,” one Deacons leader remembered, “and that we would do what we said, and we meant what we said.”
The escalating crisis forced the hand of the U.S. Department of Justice. Previously timid about expending political capital against the Klan’s alliance with local police, the DOJ unleashed Civil Rights Division head John Doar. For the first time ever, the DOJ took action against pro-Klan local law enforcement. By the end of the year, the Louisiana Klan had been devastated.
Black dignity—the responsible protection of family and community—was a core value of the Deacons. For centuries, adult black men had been called “boy,” and—because of fear of white violence—often acted in servile manner to those whites who treated them with disdain. No longer.
“Everything we [did], we walked like men,” recounted another Deacons leader. The Deacons recruited men of good moral character known for mature self-control.
The Deacons’ active self-defense garnered national media attention, and new chapters sprang up in Arkansas, Texas and Illinois. Usually, the Deacons aimed to organize first where the Klan was strongest. The group was particularly successful in Natchez, Miss., where economic boycotts, emboldened by armed protection, demolished the local structure of black inferiority.
As America’s youngest civil rights organization, the Deacons received support from America’s oldest civil rights organization—the NRA, which, like the Deacons, was dedicated to training Americans in the responsible exercise of constitutional rights. At the time, the NRA was the authorized public representative of the U.S. Army’s Civilian Marksmanship Program, and could sell army surplus ammunition at discounts to NRA members.
So the Deacons for Defense—as NRA members—bought ammunition in bulk, and distributed it for free to individual members. It’s little wonder, though, that the NRA was the Deacons’ arsenal. For most of the 20th century, the NRA shooting range in Washington, D.C., had been one of the few public accommodations in the city that was not racially segregated. Virtually alone among the sporting organizations of the late 19th and early 20th century, the NRA had always remained open to members of all races.
As for firearms, the Deacons already had plenty of their own—especially in the “Sportsman’s Paradise” of Louisiana. As it had back in 1775, a strong tradition of hunting provided a solid foundation for armed defense of liberty.
Initially, the Deacons’ main arms were shotguns, plus some handguns. Over time, there were efforts to standardize the Deacons with .30-cal. M-1 carbines and .38 Special revolvers.
In the spring of 1966, someone attempted to assassinate James Meredith, who had made history as the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi. The “Meredith March Against Fear”—from Jackson, Miss., to Memphis, Tenn.—took place on June 5 and 6, 1966. The Deacons joined the march, providing armed protection. At the nighttime campsites, armed Deacons stood guard. They shepherded the marchers all the way to their nighttime flights at the Memphis airport.
Along the march, an elderly black man died of a heart attack. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. chose to preach at the man’s funeral, in the Mississippi delta, and asked Charles Sims and the Deacons to accompany him as an escort. Likewise, Dr. King at times used the Chicago chapter of the Deacons for security.
The Meredith March marked a public split in the civil rights movement. While leaders such as Dr. King continued to emphasize that all races should work together for equal rights for everyone, the hot-headed Stokely Carmichael introduced the slogan “Black Power” for his agenda of racial separatism.
Charles Sims found that quite repulsive.
“I don’t want to live under Black Power,” Sims said. “I don’t want to live under white power. I want equal power, and that’s what I push.”
He disdained Carmichael as a useless show-off.
“I don’t see nothin’ they was doin’ to even be talkin’ about no Black Power,” Sims said. “The Black Power, we had it. In them 30 rounds of ammunition on a man’s shoulder, we had the Black Power.” (Then, as now, a 30-round rifle magazine was an excellent choice for protecting innocent people from multiple attackers.)
Black nationalists and white Communists both attempted to recruit the Deacons to their cause, but with little success. Except for supporting civil rights and self-defense, the Deacons were apolitical.
When Bogalusa Junior High integrated in the fall of 1966, white students beat up black students relentlessly, until the black students began fighting back. When they did, the Ku Klux Klan showed up at school, armed. But the Deacons also showed up, with their own guns. With the police in between, the Klan drew their guns first, and the Deacons brought out their own firearms. Unhappily, the Klansmen withdrew. The attacks on black students ended.
By the late 1960s, the Deacons had been so successful that they were no longer necessary. The gains of the civil rights movement, and the long-overdue criminal prosecutions of violent Klansmen, had greatly reduced the dangers faced by civil rights activists. The spirit of armed self-defense, which the Deacons had cultivated, meant that white racists could no longer attack blacks with impunity. While the new possibility that white-on-black crime might result in defensive gunfire, Southern law enforcement had become much more interested in stopping such attacks in the first place. Still, many say that the Deacons are only resting—ready to rise again in the hour of need.
One Deacon, the Rev. Frederick Douglas Kirk, later appeared on Sesame Street singing patriotic songs under the name “Brother Kirk.” When he sang, “This land is your land, this land is my land, this land was made for you and me,” only a few television viewers knew how much Brother Kirk had done to make those words come true.
As Charles Sims remembered, “a brand new Negro was born. The one [the racists had] been pushin’ around, he didn’t exist any more.” The Deacons for Defense and Justice were men who stood up for their community.
NRA members and NRA patriots—the Deacons for Defense and Justice were true American heroes. They exemplified the ideal of Second Amendment citizenship. The NRA was their arsenal of democracy. Under the most perilous circumstances, the Deacons chose to Stand and Fight for civil rights. Will you, in the political arena, do the same today?
More on the Deacons: Christopher Strain, “‘We Walked Like Men’: The Deacons for Defense and Justice,” Louisiana History, vol. 38, no. 1 (Winter 1997); Lance Hill, “The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement” (U.N.C. Press, 2004); “Deacons for Defense” (2003 Showtime movie; available on DVD); “Pete Seeger & Brother Kirk Visit Sesame Street” (Children’s Records of America).
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