Book Report: “The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement”. By Lance Hill (North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. p. 400).
The purpose of the Lance Hill’s book is to show what role the political movement Deacons for Defense and Liberation (DFD) played in the Civil Right Movement and the way it correlated with the nonviolence appeal of civil rights organizations, such as the SCLC, NAACP, CORE, and SNCC. Under the unceasing attacks of the Ku Klux Klan against the black population of the South the Deacons not only advocated self-defense, but they also helped shape “a new black consciousness” (Hill, 2004, p. 9), in order to exercise the constitutional rights and to become truly free from white oppression.
The author has mustered an impressive array of data in his effort to reconstruct and explain the history of this organization in 1964-1967. Using information derived from archival materials, government documents, FBI files and oral history Lance Hill, a professor of history at Tulane University, gives a detailed account of the African American freedom struggle in the South.
The book is organized into 13 chapters in chronological order. Hill starts by setting the scene for appearance of the DFD: the white South kept humiliating blacks with the system of racial segregation; voter registration gained nothing to them; vigilantes assaults spread terror; whites viewed integration as a revolution and clung to the idea of non-violence simply because they thought that blacks are not able to control their rage and would use any pretext to kill whites. Hill (2004) writes: “Segregation was the foundation of the social and labor systems of the South. Desegregation challenged the system of privilege that ensured whites the best jobs, housing, education, and government services. If the segregation barriers fell, white workers lost substantially more than a separate toilet. The conflict over segregation was ultimately a deadly contest for power. (p. 29)”.
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Being disappointed with moderate success of civil rights organizations, people understood that the ideology of non-violence would not meet their needs. Given the historical tradition of slavery in the South, it was simply impossible to repeat Ghandi’s success in India: blacks were the minority in the Deep South, while Indians outnumbered their colonizers. A demand for integration was perceived by whites as an attempt to up-end the entrenched establishment of the society. “The new abolitionists were asking southern whites for more than their hearts and minds: they were demanding their caste status and the privileges pertaining thereto” (Hill, 2004, p. 24).
In chapters 1 through 3, Hill shows that the whole Deacons activity was a response to a failure or neglect of the police to protect the members of the Jonesboro black community from white hooligans and other racist vigilantes. Along with withheld civil rights, blacks suffered from the Ku Klux Klan activity. The Deacons for Defense and Justice were organized in Jonesboro, Louisiana in 1964 by Earnest “Chilly Willy” Thomas, a leader of informal self-defense group, and Frederick Douglas Kirkpatrick, a chief of black volunteer auxiliary police squad, to protect civil rights workers, their communities and their families against the Klan. The Deacons’ strategy was for non-violence; however, their main objective was to make the town a safe place for the civil rights campaigns and voter registration work of activists from the Congress of Racial Equality.
Chapter 5 explains the difference of the DFD approach from the one of other civil rights organizations by introducing the example of the voting rights campaign launched by Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama. Hill contrasts the brutal Bloody Sunday attack on the pacifist protestation in Selma and the Jonesboro showdown, where the Deacons succeeded in defending a lawful protest of school kids against an attack by law enforcement. Federal authorities began to worry that further intimidations could provoke the Deacons to violence.
Chapters 6-8 cover the Deacons’ advancement across Louisiana. In Bogalusa, the new Deacons chapter, led by Charles Sims and Bob Hicks, confronted some of the most violent white aggression in the Deep South. Despite being outnumbered by the Klan the Deacons won, and Mayor Cutrer met almost all of the Voters League’s demands.
Chapters 3 and 8 show how periodicals contributed greatly to the Deacons popularity. The Times, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, and Jet stimulated a national debate on nonviolence. “The Deacons had become a symbol of a sea change in black consciousness. They were coming to understand that using force was more than just a tactic to defend the movement; it was a whole different approach to obtaining freedom” (Hill, 2004, p. 149).
Gathering momentum the Deacons were expanding to other states. In chapters, 9-11 Hill tells about a strong Klan presence in the Mississippi region, and how the DFD managed to join forces with the local NAACP in Natchez. Hill concedes that the Deacons’ results in the Deep South were impressive, as they organized several chapters and recruited hundreds of members; however, their main influence was on the way blacks perceive themselves and the Deacons’ “sermon” of self-reliance.
The decision to expand to the North and the difficulties encountered there by the Deacons are related in chapters 12 and 13. In the North, there was another political challenge to the nonviolent policy – the black nationalists. The Deacons’ approach did not resonate in the northern blacks: there was no Klan threat. The Deacons were simple working people, who wanted peace, dignity and justice, while the northern blacks were enchanted by the unfolding black power movement.
“Moreover, unlike the Black Panthers, the Deacons did not project a revolutionary image that could attract militant young blacks. Deacons’ mix of self-defense, rhetoric, community organizing, and racial pride could not compete with the Panthers’ romantic revolutionary image and distinctive reputation as opponents of police abuse” (Hill, 2004, p. 233). The Black Power rhetoric was so attractive that soon the Deacons were influenced by it. The Black Panther movement was in full swing. As Hill suggests, The Black Panthers were the Deacons’ successors to some extent.
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Throughout the book, Hill kept underscoring mysterious connections between Martin Luther King and the Deacons. King thought that through seeing black suffering whites would be ashamed and would change forever. King was an ardent preacher of non-violence, and at the same time, his bodyguards were permitted guns. Indeed, at the end of the day, the discrimination was ended but it cost African Americans their dignity and, what is worse, their lives. While constantly stressing his disagreement with the Deacons’ policy of armed self-defense, King had been using them for protecting his civil rights marches and other civil protestations for a number of years.
In conclusion, Hill argues that self-defense strategy was what the civil rights movements lacked all the way through, in order to finally triumph over the white terror. There is a difference between defensive violence and offensive violence, and the DFD never meant to step the line. However, without violence in the form of street riots and armed self-defense, it was impossible to defeat segregation and discrimination. Hill writes “only after the threat of black violence emerged did civil rights legislation move to the forefront of the national agenda. Only after the Deacons appeared were the civil rights laws effectively enforced” (Hill, 2004, p. 259). The Deacons could make a difference because they became a real political force, and the authorities could not bid defiance to them. Also, by taking a name they no longer were anonymous and informal, like other secret self-defense local groups. The DFD managed to create a solid organizational structure. Hill concludes by suggesting that the Deacons used weapons to avoid violence by preaching “self-reliance rather than dependence on the government for rights and freedom”.
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The history of civil rights movements is often described under the aegis of nonviolence. The nonviolent mood certainly had its time, for example, the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the lunch counter sit-ins. However, after 1962, Hill says, “Martin Luther King and the more militant nonviolent organizations had fallen victim to state repression and terrorism” (p. 259). While most African Americans sincerely believed in non-violence, they just did not want to be killed. The Deacons’ presence made sense because despite getting a pat on the back from Northern whites, there always were people who ran over a black just because they could.
The point of the author was to demolish “the myth of nonviolence” that despite the obvious contradictory evidence persists till today. The author successfully proved that the Deacons could not have done other than what they did. It was the imperative of the time. The Deacons could feel it. They understood that in order to make whites respect them, they needed to make them fear.
As for the organization and style of the book, the Deacons of Defense is well-organized and clearly written and does not require a special readership. The author deftly uses his arguments. The depiction is not overlong. There is a vivid scene illustrating a prologue for each chapter. Lance Hill has written a well-articulated book that will fill gaps in our collective memory of civil rights movements. The Deacons of Defense and Justice are of great historical importance to our understanding of civil rights movement and its achievements.
- Hill, L. (2004). The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement. North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press.