Updated: Feb 17
If you grew up Black in the South during the Jim Crow era, it was virtually guaranteed that in addition to experiencing discrimination and hatred, you also witnessed violence and intimidation. Lynchings were used not just to punish one person for a minor social transgression; it was a tool to terrorize the entire Black community. If you lived in Phillips County, Arkansas, you were subjected to witnessing a lynching every month of every year. In other counties and states, you could count on at least one lynching every year. The KKK was at its peak of power, using cross burnings, church bombings and other forms of violence to prevent Black citizens from exercising their most basic human rights.
Against this backdrop, Martin Luther King, Jr. was rising to prominence, preaching a message of non-violent resistance. But even he understood the difference between non-violent protest and essential self-defense. He was always protected by armed body guards. Other civil rights leaders, including Fannie Lou Hamer, slept with guns under their beds and concealed on their bodies. As the passions of the civil rights movement peaked in 1964, violence and intimidation from the Klan and sympathetic White law enforcement affected every Black citizen of the South, whether they were active in the Movement or not.
By the fall of 1964, Black residents of Jonesboro, Louisiana had been the victims of intense intimidation from the Klan. Seven churches and religious centers had been burned to the ground and the community was gripped by fear. Some Black community leaders - combat veterans of WWII and the Korean War - had learned two things from their time overseas. First, in Europe, they’d seen that it was possible to be Black and be treated with the same rights and respect afforded everyone else. Life in the South was not how life was everywhere else. Second, the discipline and defensive tactics of military life could be an effective tool to protect their families from the White reign of terror that was engulfing their community.
Earnest Thomas and Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick were two such veterans who decided it was time to strategically use armed resistance to protect themselves. They called their organization the Deacons for Defense and Justice.
During the “Freedom Summer” of 1964, a Freedom House had been established in Jonesboro to register Black voters. The house, and the White activists who stayed there, quickly became a target of the Klan. Thomas led a group to serve as armed sentries at the house to deter Klan violence. Kirkpatrick organized a second group to monitor police arrests and intimidation. In early 1965, Black students were picketing the local high school, demanding integration. Hostile police began to arrange fire hoses to be used against the students. A car carrying four Deacons arrived and in front of the police, they loaded their shotguns. The police withdrew the fire trucks and the Deacons achieved their first victory, using a show of weapons to defend a legal protest.
Early in the group’s establishment, Thomas and Kirkpatrick travelled 300 miles to Bogalusa, Louisiana to help create the first affiliated Deacons chapter. Bogalusa had been subjected to intense intimidation from the Klan and the town’s police force, which counted several Klansmen among its ranks. The Deacons and Klan had frequent altercations and the escalations drew the attention of the federal government. The FBI intervened and forced local law enforcement to protect civil rights workers who were organizing voter registrations.
Back in Jonesboro, civil rights groups forced the integration of the public library. The Klan conducted a series of cross burnings in response. The Deacons published leaflets threatening to kill anyone who burned a cross and Black domestic workers left the leaflets in the homes of their White employers. The cross burnings stopped.
The Deacons had strict requirements for membership. They only accepted Black males over the age of twenty-one, with a preference for married men, registered voters and military veterans. They rejected men who had reputations for “hot headedness” and staunchly held to a policy of acting only in self defense. Twenty-one chapters would be formed in Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama. Their protections allowed the NAACP and CORE to remain non-violent while benefitting from the “body guard” safety that the Deacons provided.
The Deacons played a protective and influential role in numerous civil rights events in the Deep South. They helped break the public perception of Black submission and became a source of pride and self-respect within their communities. Their willingness to stand up to the Klan and hostile law enforcement in a legal and defensive manner shifted the power of protests and drew the protection of federal intervention and national news coverage. The Deacons for Defense of Justice leave a legacy of self-defense, self-control, and a roadmap for reclaiming of power in the face of intimidation.
To learn more about the Deacons of Defense, we recommend the movie Deacons For Defense and the book The Deacons For Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement by Lance Hill