Not long ago, I read Professor Lance Hill's excellent Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement. I had already been familiar with the Deacons, of course, but only on a fairly rudimentary level--without much more knowledge than one could glean from the Wikipedia entry. I eventually realized that this is a subject on which I needed more information, and Hill's book proved to be a superb source.
I found one event described in the book particularly compelling, but first, a bit of background information is in order.
In the summer of 1965, the conflict in the South between the civil rights movement and the bigots was coming to a head. In Louisiana and elsewhere, the Klan terrorized the black community with little or no fear of prosecution, and in fact could often count on police complicity, or even outright participation. The Deacons, knowing that they were on their own in protecting their community from the Klan's terror campaign, were prepared to do just that.
In fact, on July 8th, when a white mob attacked a civil rights march in Bogalusa, Louisisana, one of the Deacons, Henry Austin, shot and wounded one of the attackers, Alton Crowe (who survived). With this shooting, an all out war between the Klan and the Deacons appeared imminent, and Louisiana Governor John McKeithen felt compelled to intervene. He chose an unfortunate approach.
Later in Baton Rouge McKeithen publicly lashed out at the Deacons, announcing that he had ordered state police to confiscate all weapons found in cars or on persons in Bogalusa. The confiscation order would apply to both blacks and whites, explained McKeithen, but he left little doubt about who his target was. "We're going to run the Deacons out of business and anybody else that's got pistols and rifles and shotguns," he declared. Charlie Sims [one of the Deacons] had, in the past, made clear how he would respond to such an order. "I would rather be caught in Bogalusa with concealed weapons," he would snort, "than without them."Now, of course, we have Jesse Jackson protesting in favor of citizen disarmament, and some idiots claiming that gun rights advocacy is racist.
On 14 July [Bogalusa] Mayor [Jesse] Cutrer announced that the city had drafted an ordinance to confiscate guns in the event of an emergency. The Voters League responded to the challenge by promptly organizing a march on Wednesday, 14 July, to protest the threatened confiscation. It was a protest that Martin Luther King or any other civil rights leader would have found unimaginable: a nonviolent march demanding the right to armed self-defense. The march ended with a spirited, defiant rally defending the Deacons. "If it weren't for the Deacons not many of us would be in the church tonight," A.Z. Young reminded his audience. "They would have run us all out of town. . . . We got the lowdowndest white people in Bogalusa than anywhere."
Louis Lomax assailed McKeithen's duplicity in threatening to disarm the Deacons while the Klan used guns with impunity. "They talk about picking up guns," Lomax told the crowd. "They didn't talk about it 100 years ago. They only talk about it when Charlie Sims has guns. Why didn't they pick up guns when two Negro deputies were shot?" Bob Hicks waxed indignant at the governor's charge that Lomax had swayed the Voters League to reject the moratorium. "We are in command. We run this campaign. This is our town. When the hard fight is over, we have to live in Bogalusa." Hicks charged that state leaders had created the conditions that called the Deacons into existence. "Guns are the only protection you have if laws are no good," he maintained. "I don't know if I'd be here today unless I had a gun." It was McKeithen and Cutrer who had created the crisis by abdicating leadership to the Klan, continued Hicks. "The Governor has no power, the mayor has no power and if no one has any power everyone should run around wild." Young summed up the tense, apocalyoptic mood of the rally: "We are on the verge of civil war."
Perhaps it's time for the Deacons to march again. Have I mentioned Chicago?