The thought of guns during America’s Civil Rights movement generally conjures up images of acts of violence perpetrated against African-Americans and civil rights workers in the South. But guns also played a significant role in dissuading violence, primarily through the actions of the Deacons for Defense and Justice.
A Call to Arms
On July 10, 1964, eight days after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Earnest Thomas and Frederick Douglas Kirkpatrick assembled a group of African-American men in Jonesboro, La., forming the Deacons for Defense and Justice (DDJ).
Although the Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination, federal enforcement was lacking and the Ku Klux Klan was alive and well in the Deep South. Volunteers for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) were facing resistance — often in the form of violence — as they attempted to register black voters. Thomas, Kirkpatrick and those who joined their cause were intent on thwarting violence by the Klan and similar factions while providing protection for the CORE volunteers and other civil rights workers.
In contrast to the message of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders, who stressed a peaceful approach, DDJ encouraged African-Americans to arm themselves for self-defense. The group did not promote violence; rather, they recruited members to carry guns in order to protect themselves and those working on their behalf. It was in defiance of CORE’s nonviolent terms that Thomas, a military veteran, began going armed while guarding CORE’s freedom house in Jonesboro from Klan attacks.
It has been written that Deacons carried a variety of guns, ranging from handguns to military-style carbine rifles to shotguns.
A Movement Takes Hold
Working discretely — members often kept their DDJ affiliation a secret — the group soon began a chapter in Bogalusa, La. Other chapters followed, until DDJ had a presence in Mississippi and Alabama in addition to their chapters in Louisiana. The group inflated its numbers as a means of intimidation, claiming to have 50 chapters across the region. An FBI investigation revealed the organization was much smaller, though it is generally accepted that DDJ had 21 chapters across the three states at its peak.
The armed self-defense movement was not without resistance. As DDJ’s popularity increased, the FBI began an investigation into the group’s activities. Agents routinely interrogated DDJ members. Before the DDJ’s founding, NAACP volunteer Robert Williams faced significant opposition when he armed his North Carolina chapter of the NAACP. Some of that opposition came from the NAACP itself. Williams was ultimately forced to seek refuge in Cuba.
Despite the resistance, the DDJ’s efforts were effective. In 1966, King was convinced to allow Deacons to provide security for the March Against Fear from Memphis to Jackson, Miss. In his book The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement, Southern Institution for Education and Research Executive Director Lance Hill wrote that Deacons helped diffuse a potentially violent situation at a Jonesboro high school. When picketing black students had fire hoses turned on them, DDJ members began loading shotguns in view of police officers stationed at the school. Officers responded by turning away the fire trucks.
Perhaps most importantly, the DDJ forced enforcement of the Civil Rights Act after armed Deacons tangled with Klan members in Bogalusa. As a result, federal authorities forced the Klan in the area to disband in a move that was symbolic of the direction in which the civil rights movement was headed.
No longer able to attack African-Americans without fear of retaliation from gun-wielding Deacons, the Klan began to lose its power-hold on the region. Local and state authorities that had been reluctant to enforce the 1964 Civil Rights Act had little choice but to react to the DDJ’s presence. In 1966, Louisiana Gov. John McKeithen required Jonesboro officials to diffuse the city’s racial disputes.
Post-Civil Rights Involvement
With the Civil Rights Act being enforced and the threat of violence greatly diminished by the late 1960s, the Deacons for Defense and Justice’s visibility declined. After 1968, the DDJ was essentially inactive.