Deacons for Defense and Justice
The Deacons for Defense and Justice was an armed self-defense Jim Crow Laws by local/state government officials and racist vigilantes. Many times the Deacons are not written about or cited when speaking of the Civil Rights Movement because their agenda of self-defense - in this case, using violence, if necessary - did not fit the image of strict non-violence that leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. espoused. 
The Deacons are a segment of the larger tradition of Black Power in the United States. This tradition began with the inception of African slavery in the U.S. and with the use of Africans as chattel slaves in the Western Hemisphere. Stokely Carmichael defines Black Power as: “The goal of black self-determination and black self-identity—Black Power—is full participation in the decision-making processes affecting the lives of black people, and recognition of the virtues in themselves as black people.” "Those of us who advocate Black Power are quite clear in our own minds that a 'non-violent' approach to civil rights is an approach black people cannot afford and a luxury white people do not deserve." This refers to the idea that the traditional ideas and values of the Civil Rights Movement placated to the emotions and feelings of White liberal supporters rather than Black Americans who had to consistently live with the racism and other acts of violence that was shown towards them.
The Deacons were a driving force of Black Power that Stokely Carmichael echoed. Carmichael speaks about the Deacons when he writes, “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?” The Deacons, according to Carmichael and many others, were the protection that the Civil Rights needed on local levels, as well as, the ones who intervened in places that the state and federal government fell short.
- History 1
- Role 2
- See also 3
- References 4
- Further reading 5
- External links 6
The Deacons were not the first champions of armed-defense during the Civil Rights Movement, but they were the first as an organized force. Many individual activists and other proponents of non-violence protected themselves with guns. Fannie Lou Hamer, the eloquently blunt Mississippi militant who outraged Lyndon B. Johnson at the 1964 Democratic Convention, confessed that she kept several loaded guns under her bed. Others such as Robert F. Williams also practiced self-defense. Williams transformed his local NAACP branch into an armed self-defense unit, for which transgression he was denounced by the NAACP and hounded by the federal government (he found asylum in Cuba).
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was no stranger to the idea of self-defense. According to Annelieke Dirks, “Even Martin Luther King Jr.—the icon of nonviolence—employed armed bodyguards and had guns in his house during the early stages of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), observed during a house visit that the police did not allow King a weapon permit, but that ‘the place is an arsenal." Efforts from those such as Smiley convinced Dr. King that any sort of weapons or “self-defense” could not be associated with someone holding King's position. Dr. King agreed.
In many areas of the “Deep South” the federal and state governments had no control of local authorities and groups that did not want to follow the laws enacted. One such group, the
- "Niggers Ain't Gonna Run This Town" a prize-winning student paper
- Lance Hill
- 2003 TV movieDeacons for Defense at the Internet Movie Database
- How Lance Hill came to write The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement
- Francis Fox Piven, Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), pg 23-25
- Emilye J. Crosby “‘This Nonviolent Stuff Aint No Good. It’ll Get You Killed.’: Teaching About Self-Defense in the African-American Freedom Struggle” in Teaching the American Civil Rights Movement, Julie Buckner Armstrong et al, eds. (Routledge, 2002)
- Review of Lance Hill's book (see the Further reading section).
- Deacons for Defense at the Internet Movie Database
- Hill 2004, p. 264-265.
- Hill 2004, p. 265.
 The tactics of the Deacons attracted the attention and concern of the
The history of the Civil Rights Movement focuses little on organizations such as the Deacons for a number of reasons. First, the dominant ideology of the Movement was one of practicing non-violence and this overarching view has been the accepted way to characterize the Civil Rights Movement. Second, threats to the lives of Deacons' members required that secrecy be maintained to avoid terrorist attacks on their supporters, and they recruited mature and male members, in contrast to other more informal self-defense efforts in which women and teenagers also played a role. Finally, with the shift to Northern Black plight and the idea of The Black Panther Party gained notoriety and became the publicized militant Black organization.
An example of the need for self-defense to enable substantial change in the Deep South took place in early 1965. Black students picketing the local high school were confronted by hostile police and fire trucks with hoses. A car of four Deacons emerged and, in view of the police, calmly loaded their shotguns. The police ordered the fire truck to withdraw. This was the first time in the 20th century, as Lance Hill observes, “an armed black organization had successfully used weapons to defend a lawful protest against an attack by law enforcement.” Hill gives as another example: “In Jonesboro, the Deacons made history when they compelled Louisiana governor John McKeithen to intervene in the city’s civil rights crisis and require a compromise with city leaders — the first capitulation to the civil rights movement by a Deep South governor.”
According to Hill, this is the true resistance that enforced civil rights in areas of the Deep South. Often it was local (armed) communities that laid the foundation for equal opportunities to be attained by African Americans. National organizations played their role, exposing the problems, but it was local organizations and individuals who implemented these rights and were not fearful of reactionary Whites who wanted to keep segregation alive. Without these local organizations pushing for their rights and, many times, using self-defense tactics, not much would have changed, according to Hill.  The Deacons had a relationship with other civil rights groups that advocated and practiced
 Umoja suggests that ideological shifts in the movement were becoming apparent even before the March Against Fear. By 1965, both SNCC and CORE supported armed self-defense. National CORE leadership, including
Scholar Akinyele O. Umoja speaks about the group’s effort more specifically. According to Umoja it was the urging of Stokely Carmichael that the Deacons were to be used as security for the march. Many times protection from the federal or state government was either inadequate or not given, even while knowing that groups like the Klan would commit violent acts against civil rights workers. An example of this was the Freedom Ride where many non-violent activists became the targets of assault for angry White mobs. After some debate and discussion many of the civil rights leaders compromised their strict non-violent beliefs and allowed the Deacons to be used. One such person was Dr. King. Umoja states, “Finally, though expressing reservations, King conceded to Carmichael’s proposals to maintain unity in the march and the movement. The involvement and association of the Deacons with the march signified a shift in the civil rights movement, which had been popularly projected as a ‘nonviolent movement.”‘
The Deacons were instrumental in many campaigns led by the Civil Rights Movement. A good example is the June 1966 March Against Fear, which went from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi. The March Against Fear signified a shift in character and power in the southern civil rights movement and was an event in which the Deacons participated.
The Deacons are the subject of a 2003 television movie, Deacons for Defense. Produced by Showtime starring academy-award winner Forest Whitaker, Ossie Davis, and Jonathan Silverman, the film is based on the struggle of the actual Deacons for Defense against the Jim Crow South in a powerful area of Louisiana controlled by the Ku Klux Klan. Using the story of a white-owned factory that controls the economy of the local society and the effects of racism and intimidation on the lives of the African-American community, the film follows the psychological transition of a family and community members from belief in a strict non-violent stance to belief in self-defense.
There are many accounts of how the group's name came about, but according to Lance Hill the most plausible explanation is: “the name was a portmanteau that evolved over a period of time, combining the CORE staff’s first appellation of ‘deacons’ with the tentative name chosen in November 1964: ‘Justice and Defense Club’. By January 1965 the group had arrived at is permanent name, ‘Deacons for Defense and Justice.’” The organization wanted to maintain a level of respectability and identify with traditionally accepted symbols of peace and moral values. As one ex-Deacon wrote in a lyric of a song, “the term ‘deacons’ was selected to beguile local whites by portraying the organization as an innocent church group....”
Earnest “Chilly Willy” Thomas was born in Jonesboro, Louisiana, on November 20, 1935, in a time of extreme segregation. He believed that political reforms could be secured by force rather than moral appeal. The CORE had a freedom house in Jonesboro that became the target of the Klan. The practice referred to as “nigger knocking” was a time-honored tradition among whites in the rural South. Because of repeated attacks on the Freedom House, the Black community responded. Earnest Thomas was one of the first volunteers to guard the house. According to Lance Hill, “Thomas was eager to work with CORE, but he had reservations about the nonviolent terms imposed by the young activists.” Thomas, who had military training, quickly emerged as the leader of this budding defense organization that would guard the Jonesboro community in the day with their guns concealed and carried their guns openly during the cover of night to discourage any Klan activity.
The African-American community felt that a response of action was crucial in curbing this terrorism given the lack of support and protection by State and Federal authorities. A group of African-American men in Mississippi, and Alabama. The militant Deacons' confrontation with the Klan in Bogalusa was instrumental in forcing the federal government to invervene on behalf of the black community and enforce the 1964 Civil Rights Act and neutralize the Klan.
These incidents were not isolated since a significant amount of victimization of African Americans occurred in Jonesboro, Louisiana in 1964.