How Blacks in South defended
themselves against Klan violence
BY ARRIN HAWKINS
In her letter to the editor printed below, reader Wendy Banen asks for examples of armed self-defense by Blacks against the racist violence endemic to Jim Crow. Legal segregation in employment, housing, schools, and other aspects of life was smashed by the mass movement for Black rights in the 1950s and '60s.
Armed defense against racist attacks in the South is a lesser-known part of Blacks' resistance to the Klan, White Citizen councils, and other ultrarightist outfits. Racist violence, condoned by federal and state authorities, was aimed at defending segregation and punishing anyone who opposed it. When faced with Blacks prepared to defend themselves, their property, and the lives of civil rights workers, however, racist vigilantes retreated.
One example is the Union County NAACP chapter in Monroe, North Carolina, led by Robert F. Williams. Blacks there starting in 1957 organized armed "civil defense groups" to counter Klan attacks.
"Since the city officials wouldn't stop the Klan, we decided to stop the Klan ourselves," Williams recounts in his book Negroes with Guns. "We started this action out of the need for defense because law and order had completely vanished; because there was no such thing as a 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution in Monroe, N.C."
In 1965, young fighters in McComb, Mississippi, organized all-night armed patrols to deter Klan "joyrides" in Black neighborhoods. McComb was the scene of some of the heaviest Klan violence against the civil rights movement. While hundreds of civil rights workers were participating in Freedom Summer in Mississippi in 1964, some 16 bombings occurred in McComb.
Members of the Young Socialist Alliance visiting the town met with some of these militants in McComb. "Armed self-defense was actually initiated by two teen-aged girls," Joel Britton wrote in the March 22, 1965, Militant. "They were fed up with the bombings of Negro homes and churches and took to sitting up nights on the porch with guns. When their parents and other adults discovered how the girls were spending their nights, they decided it was a good idea, but shouldn't be left to the youngsters alone to carry on."
Another militant example is the Deacons for Defense and Justice, which was formed in Jonesboro, Louisiana, to protect Blacks from Klan raids. In July 1964, after Blacks tried to implement the Civil Rights Act in public accommodations, a 30-car motorcade of Klansmen rode through the Black neighborhood escorted by the Jonesboro police. "We decided that if the power structure would do that for Klan, then we had better do something for ourselves," said Earnest Thomas, a leader of the Deacons in Jonesboro.
The Deacons had chapters across Louisiana, including in Bogalusa, Baton Rouge, and New Iberia. The group declined by 1968, as desegregation advanced.
Speaking at a Militant Labor Forum in New York in December 1965, Deacons leader Charles Sims said, "We let him [the Klan] know that everywhere the civil rights workers went, he might not see them, he might not know who the Deacons might be, but somewhere close to him we were there."
Deacons for Defense, a 2003 film directed by Bill Duke that dramatizes the story of the group, shows the Deacons succeeding in desegregating a Louisiana saw mill.
Praising the combative example set by the Deacons, an editorial in the June 21, 1965, Militant said, "The Deacons will help the civil rights movement win further victories, by reducing the terror which helps prevent Negroes from winning new rights and exercising rights already won on paper…. Everyone who is for civil rights and Negro equality should give the Deacons every support and encouragement, and should defend their right to exist and grow, free from government harassment."