(Editor’s Note: Olivia McClure recently obtained her master's degree in mass communication from LSU and is a former member of the LSU Cold Case Project team. To reach McClure, email omcclu1@lsu.edu. To reach the Concordia Sentinel, email stanley@concordiasentinel.com.)

 

One night about 50 years ago, while Bob Hicks was at home with his wife and five children in Bogalusa, Louisiana, the telephone rang. Two young women were hiding from the Ku Klux Klan in a barn across the state line in Mississippi, the frantic caller said. They were white, maybe civil rights workers. And they needed help — specifically, the kind that only someone like Hicks could provide, even though he was miles away.

Hicks and his friends — many of them his coworkers at Bogalusa’s Crown Zellerbach paper mill — were in the business of rescuing people from the dangers of the Klan, even if it meant breaking social taboos and using guns. They called themselves the Deacons for Defense and Justice, an armed defense organization of black men who made a relentless commitment to protect themselves and their allies from racial violence.

Today, as America continues to struggle with police brutality and stubborn racial inequality, only a few of Hicks’ comrades are still here to recall how they stepped up in the 1960s to protect their friends and families from white aggression when police — some themselves members of the Klan — refused. While modern activists in the Black Lives Matter movement confront these issues with rallies and social media campaigns, the Deacons went beyond civil disobedience and picked up their guns, forming a security force of their own.

In a handful of Louisiana towns, the Deacons earned the trust of black people and successfully shielded them from the Klan’s bullets and bombs — but it came at the price of constantly putting their lives at risk. And much like today’s protestors, who have drawn criticism from both blacks and whites, the Deacons received the scorn of segregationists and civil rights leaders alike.

The Deacons carried guns openly, warning anyone who sought to do them harm that they would shoot back. Still, on the night Bob Hicks set out for the barn in Mississippi, his teenage daughter, Barbara, worried about his safety. What if it was a set-up? What if some whites had plotted an ambush?

Although armed Deacons could be found in communities across Louisiana and Mississippi in the mid-1960s, the chapter to which Hicks belonged quickly was becoming legendary and had enemies far beyond Bogalusa, which at the time was the scene of some of Louisiana’s most extreme racial strife. The KKK, whose local group sometimes called in backup from southwest Mississippi, was the obvious enemy. But local and state officials and police officers were no fans of the Deacons either, and had occasionally threatened to confiscate their impressive arsenals.

The Deacons were not known to shrink from adversity, however, and that was probably the very reason someone thought to call Hicks for help that night.

“Nothing that he does is safe,” Hicks’ wife Valeria, known to friends and family as “Jackie,” reminded Barbara as Bob Hicks left for Mississippi. And a few hours later, it became clear the phone call hadn’t been a set-up.

“The Klan and the whites who were opposing our civil rights, they really resented whites, especially white women, coming into Bogalusa to help blacks fight for their rights,” Barbara Hicks-Collins recalled years later in 2015. “They had had a situation there, and so what the people did in the county or the town, they hid them out in barns, and then they called for the Deacons to come and get them. And my father said, of all the people that he ever remembered, those were the two that were the most frightened two girls that he had ever seen.”

 

STANDING UP TO THE KLAN

 

In rough-and-tumble places like Bogalusa, where the Ku Klux Klan pulled the strings of elected officials and law enforcement, the nonviolent strategy that Martin Luther King Jr. advocated during the civil rights movement had made little headway in the mid-1960s. Peaceful marches and sit-ins did almost nothing to persuade leaders in these towns, many of whom doubled as Klansmen or at least were sympathizers, to honor blacks’ civil rights or even guarantee their safety. Even whites who did not oppose Klan activities often were intimidated by the group’s signature violence.

The Deacons for Defense and Justice began in the north-central Louisiana town of Jonesboro in 1964, where several local black men provided Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) field secretary Ronnie Moore an armed escort to Monroe after Klansmen tried to follow his car out of town. Deacons chapters emerged throughout Louisiana and southwest Mississippi, but fizzled out by the late 1960s. It was a brief existence that nevertheless helped pry away power from white supremacists that had gone unchecked for decades.

“The Klansmen want to kill, but they don’t want to die,” said Moore, who now works for the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans’ charity program. Once the Deacons made it known they carried guns and were willing to use them, the Klan’s vicious threats seemed to fall flat.

“The Klan was actually hiding behind the police,” recalled Fletcher Anderson, who was a 24-year-old worker in Crown Zellerbach’s box-making division when he joined the Bogalusa Deacons in 1965. Policemen could get away with beating up civil rights protestors or refusing to respond to black residents’ calls for protection from the Klan, he said. If black people did not resist the Klan’s attacks, only so much could be accomplished by picketing downtown.

Civil rights activists were frequent targets of the Klan before the Deacons came onto the scene, said James Bradford, who’s been mayor of Jonesboro since 2015. His sister was in CORE and he sometimes rode along with his Deacon cousin, Percy Lee Bradford. The Klan despised civil rights organizations, which recruited northern college students and activists to coordinate voter registration drives and boycotts in the South. Many of them were white — a further insult to segregationists fearing the demise of their civilization if black people were to ever vote or attend the same public schools as white children.

Extra CORE volunteers usually came to Jonesboro ahead of big rallies, and because local hotels would refuse them rooms, they turned to black families. Some worried about retaliation from whites, but others were willing to risk the Klan’s wrath. The Klan once threatened to burn a cross in Bradford’s yard when his family let a couple of young workers spend the night.

“That’s when my dad sat up all night in the window with a shotgun waiting for them to come and burn the cross, but they never did,” Bradford said. His father was not a Deacon, though. “Everybody basically had weapons for protection.”

The Deacons operated in rural areas, and most country people — black and white — kept guns around the house and had no qualms about using them to shoot their supper or the odd intruder, long before the civil rights movement. The Deacons were not unique because of their guns, Moore said, but because they were organized.

“(Self-defense) was a natural instinct,” he said. “I remember there were many guns in the civil rights movement that folks carried from time to time, and history will never recall how many carried guns, how many used guns. History will recall the Deacons for Defense, but there were probably many more without names that played a nonviolent self-defense role.”

“You have to realize,” he added, “this is a gun-carrying country, and African-Americans carry guns too.”

Former Deacons, many of them now in their 70s, stress that they began packing guns simply because they were tired of watching people live in fear as police sometimes literally let the Klan get away with murder. While they were not the only organization to advocate armed resistance during those turbulent years and beyond, the Deacons took a decidedly less militant and more defensive approach than groups like the Black Panthers in California. For the Deacons, weapons were a signal for would-be attackers to retreat.

“They found out, ‘Well OK, we better back up. If we shot over there, they’re going to shoot over here,’” said Charlie White, a founding member of the organization. Still an imposing figure today who works security at the Jonesboro Walmart, White once slept on the roof of a school with a gun every night for an entire year to keep watch over houses where civil rights workers stayed.

The threat usually was effective. Although some shootouts still ensued, there is no record of anyone dying at the hands of a Deacon in Louisiana. Their ultimate goal was to protect lives, and they cleared the way for activists to safely go about protests and voter education efforts.

In the early days of the Deacons, some people worried the men were purely vigilantes. But many of them, like White, were churchgoing family men who wanted to reassure their communities they could be trusted — so the name of their organization was chosen carefully.

“The most important people in the community were the deacons in the church,” White said. “They were people who tried to help people, who done the right thing, people to be looked up to.”

Only adults who held a job and were deemed to be of solid moral character were admitted. “Rowdy people” weren’t allowed, White said. Snitches who leaked information about the Deacons were kicked out of the organization. And, above all, Deacons were not to shoot unless shot at.

Despite the Deacons’ strict rules, the idea of organized armed black men alarmed authorities and horrified many whites, including some of the young volunteers for nonviolent organizations like CORE. The Deacons clashed with some black leaders, including King, who trumpeted nonviolence as the only acceptable tactic for achieving equal rights. King excoriated the Deacons in June 1966, saying their practices only encouraged blacks to “be like our oppressor.”

Yet in Jonesboro, their approach seemed to be working. The Klan found out the Deacons weren’t going to let them get away with things they did before. Once, White recalled, the Klan staged a huge rally along Hwy. 167 that featured a 30-foot wooden cross wrapped in kerosene-soaked burlap. Lying on the nearby railroad tracks, White and another Deacon fired their guns toward the cross.

No one was hurt — but the Klan meeting didn’t last much longer.

 

A CRISIS RAGES IN BOGALUSA

 

Jonesboro was like most Southern towns in the 1960s, where black residents knew their place, Bradford said. If they went to a café, they went in through the back door. If they went to the movies, they went upstairs and watched from the balcony.

Bogalusa had all the hallmarks of the midcentury South along with a much more active, more vicious Ku Klux Klan. The Washington Parish town is near the Louisiana-Mississippi state line in the pine tree forests of the Florida Parishes region, which for much for the 20th century had a reputation as Louisiana’s Wild West — a lawless place ruled by the Klan.

“There was not as much poverty in Jonesboro as in Bogalusa, so most people in Jonesboro made a decent living,” Bradford said, “so the racism was not as obvious in Jonesboro as it was in places like Bogalusa.”

The Crown Zellerbach paper mill was how most people, black and white, made a living in Bogalusa. Only white employees, however, could apply for promotions to management positions, even after the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. Black and white workers had separate unions, time clocks, restrooms and lunchrooms. As the economic centerpiece of this one-industry town, frictions at the mill spilled over into all aspects of life.

Robert “Bob” Hicks, vice president of the Bogalusa Civic and Voters League, worked at the mill. The league had been around long before CORE came to town, but the two groups eventually teamed up to demand an end to segregation in Bogalusa. On Feb. 1, 1965, word got out that Hicks was letting CORE workers Bill Yates and Steve Miller spend the night at his house. Not long after supper that night, Bogalusa Police Chief Claxton Knight was on the doorstep of the modest gray house, warning Hicks a mob of white men, some of them undoubtedly Klansmen, were making plans to kill them all. They were so enraged, the chief said, that there was nothing he could do to stop them. He refused to send officers to the Hicks home.

Taking matters into their own hands, Jackie and Barbara Hicks started phoning friends, asking them to bring their guns to defend the house and the young civil rights workers. The Klan never came.

Deacons from Jonesboro soon visited Bogalusa to help set up a new chapter that grew out of the black workers’ union at Crown Zellerbach. Under Charlie Sims, who former members describe as an intimidating but effective leader, the chapter would quickly grow into a force to be reckoned with. Every night, Deacons were posted around town to keep watch for Klan nightriders and used walkie-talkies to stay in touch. They “popped up” whenever they were needed, often surprising Klansmen and policemen with their speed, said Marvin Austin, who as a teenager often skipped school to picket or hang out with the Deacons.

All Deacons chapters kept their numbers a closely guarded secret — to this day, no former members will reveal how many there were — so the Klan couldn’t plan counterattacks with even more men. Just a few Deacon leaders are still alive today. But in 1960s Bogalusa, a city where about one-third of its 21,000 residents were black, there were numerous official and unofficial members.

“It wasn’t just no membership drive. Every black man was considered a potential Deacon,” said Willie Jenkins, whose mother, Gayle Jenkins, was president of the Bogalusa Civic and Voters League and reportedly the only woman to be a Deacon.

The league conducted voter registration campaigns and other nonviolent activities, but coordinated with the Deacons for security at mass meetings and rallies. And although Hicks was not officially part of the organization because of his involvement in the voters league, armed Deacons escorted him and other civil rights activists to and from work.

As tensions over segregation at Crown Zellerbach festered in 1965, the Deacons were called on regularly to protect black residents and civil rights workers. Besides demanding equal employment opportunities at the mill and other businesses in town, activists wanted the mayor to enforce other elements of the Civil Rights Act. Bogalusa escalated into an environment so feverish that Gov. John J. McKeithen, a Democrat from north Louisiana who’d been elected on a segregationist platform, sent a team including labor leader Victor Bussie and attorney Camille Gravel to negotiate a compromise in April 1965.

After city leaders and activists reached a deal in May, some black residents tried to enter the white-only Cassidy Park. After several angry white men arrived and attacked the demonstrators, policemen turned dogs loose on the crowd, which included Bob Hicks’ children — prompting Hicks to get a federal injunction against the police chief. It was violated several times.

A month later, sheriff’s deputy Oneal Moore, one of the first black deputies hired in Washington Parish, died after white men riding in a pickup fired shots into his squad car in nearby Varnado. And in July, Deacon Henry Austin accidentally shot a white man, Alton Crowe, during a scuffle at an afternoon rally.

Crowe survived, but the tumultuous summer turned Bogalusa, already a hotbed of racial violence, into a lit powder keg. The night of the shooting, National States Rights Party leader J.B. Stoner held a rally in Bogalusa, where he fired up 1,500 whites with a sermon against tolerance. “We don’t believe in getting along with our enemy, and the nigger is our enemy,” he said, according to a New York Times article.

Times reporter Roy Reed wrote the next day that “Confederate battle flags sprouted on hundreds of cars here today as whites and Negroes pressed a war of nerves.” Seventy-two state troopers already had been occupying the town for much of 1965; McKeithen sent 150 more after the shooting.

“It was a matter of keeping both sides from getting to the throats of the other,” Malcolm Millet, a trooper who had assignments in Bogalusa during the ordeal, recalled in an interview published in a Louisiana State Troopers Association newsletter in the late 1980s. “In doing so you got involved in some things yourself that caused problems. In trying to protect the rights of one group, you always create problems with the other.”

The voters league continued to hold marches, pleading with city officials to change their ways, riling up Klansmen to the point that outright war seemed likely. McKeithen eventually flew in for more negotiations but refused to hire black state troopers — one of the league’s key demands. Weary of the tensions, and the national spotlight they had suddenly put on Louisiana, the governor even threatened to disarm both the Klan and Deacons.

The U.S. Department of Justice ultimately got involved, filing a lawsuit against the Original Knights of the Ku Klux Klan — the official name of the Florida Parishes group — that included an order for local authorities to follow the law and protect black residents from racial violence.

The Klansmen were “ignorant bullies, callous of the harm they know they are doing and lacking in sufficient understanding to comprehend the chasm between their own twisted Konstitution and the noble charter of liberties under law that is the American Constitution,” U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach wrote in the lawsuit. “Legal tolerance of secret societies must cease at the point where their members assume supra-governmental powers and take the law in their own hands.”

Behind the scenes, “Big John” McKeithen had arranged to pay the Klan and Deacons $5,000 in cash each if they backed down and ended the standoff, according to an April 2016 report from Louisiana State University students who are part of the LSU Cold Case Project team, which has investigated civil rights era murders in the state. The students also recently obtained FBI files showing it was just one of several payments McKeithen orchestrated in the mid-1960s in an effort to prevent Klan violence while keeping his popularity with the group intact — though it would eventually erode anyway.

Still, it was the Deacons who helped bring the Bogalusa situation to a head, and people took notice, daughter Hicks-Collins said. They started getting calls from people who wanted to set up more chapters around the state and the South, including in Natchez, Mississippi, and Ferriday, Louisiana. In those towns, the Deacons patrolled neighborhoods and guarded rallies, but they also helped black community leaders enforce boycotts of white-owned businesses.

 

FERRIDAY & VIDALIA

 

Hardscrabble Ferriday and nearby Vidalia — which consisted mostly of barrooms and lumber yards — were the home base of the Silver Dollar Group, a notoriously brutal offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan whose supporters included local lawmen. They kept close tabs on any possible opponents, regardless of race.

The Klan was “a secret organization that ruled the white community just as the black community,” said Robert “Buck” Lewis, who led the Ferriday Freedom Movement and local NAACP chapter in the late 1960s. If a white banker, for example, was suspected of being a “nigger lover” because he loaned money to a black client, the Klan might come after them both, he said.

In Ferriday as elsewhere, the Deacons were the first people in a long time to publicly stand up to — and return — those threats.

“The same problems and situations that we experienced, they were experiencing in other parishes in Louisiana in different parts of the state,” Hicks-Collins said. “…When they had different situations — somebody was beaten or hospitalized — people began to say, ‘This is enough, we need to do something. We tried Martin Luther King’s way and we’re not getting where we want to get. We’re getting people hurt and killed, so we need to do something else in addition to the philosophy of Dr. King.’ And that is to bring the Deacons in.”

 

THE DEACONS MAKE NATIONAL WAVES

 

Nightmare scenarios like the 1965 Bogalusa confrontation were precisely why King and other black leaders were uneasy about the Deacons, which they worried would give civil rights a bad name and wreck the entire movement. At the same time, it was difficult to deny the Deacons’ effectiveness in deterring Klan attacks on black residents and civil rights workers alike.

The Deacons’ success garnered them a national audience, of which Bogalusa’s Charlie Sims took advantage during fundraising trips to major cities, including Chicago and Detroit. In 1966, Sims even helped start a short-lived Deacons chapter in Chicago.

Although the Deacons had good relationships with most CORE volunteers, the fact that an armed group was protecting them presented a dilemma for national civil rights groups.

“The nonviolent character of the movement was an effort to appeal to the quote-unquote morality of whites, and thinking that whites would not engage in open violence,” said Rickey Hill, a Jackson State University political science professor who grew up in Bogalusa. CORE managed to gain white liberal support in the North with that strategy, but it obviously failed to sway the Southern Klan’s views on race relations.

Moore, the former CORE field secretary, said many people in the movement felt strongly about nonviolent civil disobedience as a way of life. Others were more practical, he said, and did not see self-defense as incompatible with nonviolence principles.

“I’m glad the Deacons exist,” CORE national director James Farmer said in a September 1965 Ebony magazine article. “I know that some are comparing them to the Ku Klux Klan. But how many lynchings have they committed? How many homes have they burned — how many churches?”

CORE eventually backed down from its official position of nonviolence in 1966 when Farmer resigned as director and Black Power advocates took on leadership roles in the organization. By then, civil rights efforts were starting to wind down in CORE’s Southern outposts, but the movement was taking a new direction in other places, borrowing more inspiration from the Deacons than King, Hill said.

“There had not been any other entity that had come out of the civil rights movement in the South that had taken up self-defense in an organized way, so the Black Panther Party, Bobby Seal and Huey Newton … used the Deacons as a model to structure their ideas about self-defense,” he said. The Deacons influenced Black Power and Black Nationalism ideals in late 1960s, Hill said, because “people came to accept the fact that black people could defend themselves.”

King, however, still held fast to nonviolence in 1966 and rebuked the Deacons in June of that year. “Some people are telling us to be like our oppressor, who has a history of using Molotov cocktails, who has a history of dropping the atom bomb, who has a history of lynching Negroes,” he said then, according to a New York Times article. “Now people are telling me to stoop down to that level. I’m sick and tired of violence.”

But just days after making that remark, King joined James Meredith’s March Against Fear in Jackson, Mississippi, even though Deacons had come up from Bogalusa to escort the marchers. Meredith, who four years earlier integrated the University of Mississippi, was shot on the second day of his march — a reminder of the dangerous reality of civil rights activism in the South.

“Everything went well — after we got there,” said Anderson, one of the Bogalusa Deacons who went to Jackson.

Back in Louisiana in August 1967, the debate over nonviolence and self-defense seemed almost irrelevant as activists set out on a 100-mile, 10-day march from Bogalusa to the capitol in Baton Rouge. Their route cut across the Klan-infested Florida Parishes — basically a guarantee the marchers would run into trouble. McKeithen, who had evolved into a racial moderate since his election in 1964, ordered the State Police to guard the march along Hwy. 190. Still, white men managed to break through a line of troopers and start fighting with marchers near Satsuma in Livingston Parish, prompting McKeithen to call in the National Guard.

The governor, in a 1982 interview aired on Louisiana Public Broadcasting, said protecting the marchers was “the only thing to do,” even though it was a politically unpopular decision.

“I wasn’t taking any chances of a bloodbath,” he said.

Neither were the demonstrators from Bogalusa, who arrived on the capitol steps on Aug. 21 surrounded by armed Deacons.

“The people that was in the march weren’t nonviolent,” said Willie Jenkins, who was a child at the time. “If we would’ve been, we wouldn’t be here today, because I remember them saying there was a thousand Klansmen coming.”

 

SCARS FROM A TUMULTUOUS PAST

 

Klan and Deacons activity died down in Louisiana by the early 1970s, after the FBI cracked down on Klan violence and racial tensions built up in the past decade finally began to ease. The civil rights movement was drawing to a close in the South as “crowning achievements” became reality, such as hiring black policemen and desegregating schools, Hill said.

Many rural communities, however, still bear the scars of the violent era that gave rise to the Deacons half a century ago. Their economies and quality of life suffered because of the racial strife then, creating divisions that exist to this day.

Bogalusa, a “company town” developed around its paper mill, was once a shopping destination for people living on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, Hill said. But the civil rights era would forever harden Bogalusans’ aversion to change and progress. Today, the mill, now owned by International Paper, remains a major economic force, but the once-vibrant entrepreneurial spirit of the community is gone.

“(If) you want to keep black folks down, you keep poor whites down,” Hill said. “If you don’t want to see change, you don’t make change. You let change occur all around you, and that is what’s happened in Bogalusa.”

In Ferriday, the black-led boycott forced many businesses to close and never return, leaving downtown full of empty storefronts. Lewis, the Freedom Movement leader who later taught history at Concordia Parish’s alternative high school, said public schools have steadily gone down in the past few decades. And though the Klan’s shootings stopped, Ferriday’s streets now harbor violent gangs, perhaps a result of the desperate kind of poverty that has plagued the town for decades.

As white residents moved away in droves in the late 1960s and 1970s, Lewis remembers some of them saying, “The niggers won Ferriday, let them have it.”

“See all this right here?” Antonne Duncan, a former Ferriday Deacon who still lives there, said as he pointed at burglar bars covering a window in his house. “They couldn’t throw a bomb through it. These was a little closer, ‘cause we had it where they couldn’t throw nothing through there, but now it’s where you can’t climb through — you know, when you’re not at home.”

Still, many Deacons say they’ve never thought of leaving their hometowns, not even in their bloodiest and darkest days in the 1960s. Without them, the Klan might have never met its match.

In November 2014, dozens of people walked down Robert “Bob” Hicks Street in Bogalusa and sang spirituals until they arrived in front of an aging wooden house, where a National Register of Historic Places marker was unveiled. Hicks’ daughter is now working to turn the house — where the Bogalusa Deacons began in 1965 — into a civil rights museum. She hopes it will inspire young people to learn more about a pivotal, though grim, time in their community’s history.

“If they appreciate living,” Hicks-Collins said, they should be thankful for the Deacons.

(Editor’s Note: Olivia McClure recently obtained her master's degree in mass communication from LSU and is a former member of the LSU Cold Case Project team. To reach McClure, email omcclu1@lsu.edu. To reach the Concordia Sentinel, email stanley@concordiasentinel.com.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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