ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
For a Black man to point a gun at a white man was an act of insanity.
Now Showtime has brought the story of the Deacons for Defense to cable television.
Books on the Deacons for Defense
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A Review of the Film
By Amin Sharif
The first time I heard about the Deacons for Defense was early June of 1965. There had been another murder down in the Deep South. This time it wasn’t three civil rights workers in Mississippi who had been slain. This time the victim was a Black Deputy Sheriff and the place was Bogalusa, Louisiana. But there was something different going on in Bogalusa. A group of Black men had decided to stand up to the white terror. A group of Black men had decided to take on the Klu Klux Klan. These Black men called themselves the Deacons for Defense and Justice.
The Deacons were as mysterious as they were legendary for their courage. For they did in the Deep South what the Black Panther Party would later attempt in the West. The Deacons — Black men — had armed themselves against the terror of white racism. One must remember what these men were up against to understand what they did in Bogalusa. In the Deep South, a Black man could be lynched for not stepping into the gutter as a white man, woman or child passed him in the street.
The Jim Crow of the South held the entire Black population hostage to the whims of any white person. And then there was the Klan or the Nightriders, as some called them, dressed in sheets and gowns always ready to defend “white honor” by murder and terror. For a Black man to raise a hand to a white man under these conditions was an automatic death sentence. For a Black man to point a gun at a white man was an act of insanity. Now Showtime has brought the story of the Deacons for Defense to cable television. Starring Forrest Whitaker and the great Ossie Davis, this production is as true a dramatization as we can expect from a commercial undertaking.
The story of the Deacons is deftly told through the eyes of Marcus Clay played by Whitaker. Marcus Clay is a mill worker at the highly segregated plant that owns the town of Bogalusa. Owing his livelihood to the white folks at the plant, Marcus is no friend to the efforts that are erupting throughout the deep South to end segregation. He has grown up with white violence and wishes to keep it away from his family. But Marcus’ dream of living alongside of white violence is shattered when a friend is beaten for placing his name on a list reserved for white men at the plant where he works and when his daughter suffers the same fate during a civil rights march to desegregate the town. The final straw comes when, after attempting to save his daughter from her beating, he find himself taken out and beaten by the local police. Marcus Clay’s answer to the violence visited upon friend and family is to form the Deacons for Defense.
The story continues in the expected manner. There are a series of victories and set backs for the Deacons. Houses are burned. White civil rights workers try unsuccessfully to turn the Deacons back towards Martin Luther King’s technique of non-violence. Next, there is a dramatic showdown between the Deacons and the Klan. But despite a plot where all the moves of the players are predictable, the Deacons for Defense succeeds in gathering sympathy from its audience. And, if the history of the Deacons gets a little disjointed, not to worry. Showtime has smartly added a small documentary on the Deacons after the movie. Whatever is lost in the movie is more than covered in the documentary called “Defending the Deacons.”
Taken together, the movie and the documentary do more justice to the legend of the Deacons than harm. All in all, the Deacons for Defense (with the documentary) is well worth watching.
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Robert Hicks, Leader in Armed Rights Group, Dies at 81It was the night of Feb. 1, 1965, in Bogalusa, La.
The Klan was furious that Mr. Hicks, a black paper mill worker, was putting up two white civil rights workers in his home. It was just six months after three young civil rights workers had been murdered in Philadelphia, Miss.
Mr. Hicks and his wife, Valeria, made some phone calls. They found neighbors to take in their children, and they reached out to friends for protection. Soon, armed black men materialized. Nothing happened.
Less than three weeks later, the leaders of a secretive, paramilitary organization of blacks called the Deacons for Defense and Justice visited Bogalusa. It had been formed in Jonesboro, La., in 1964 mainly to protect unarmed civil rights demonstrators from the Klan.
After listening to the Deacons, Mr. Hicks took the lead in forming a Bogalusa chapter, recruiting many of the men who had gone to his house to protect his family and guests. Mr. Hicks died of cancer at his home in Bogalusa on April 13 at the age of 81, his wife said. He was one of the last surviving Deacon leaders.
But his role in the civil rights movement went beyond armed defense in a corner of the Jim Crow South. He led daily protests month after month in Bogalusa then a town of 23,000, of whom 9,000 were black to demand rights guaranteed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act. . . .
When James Farmer, national director of the human rights group the Congress of Racial Equality, joined protests in Bogalusa, one of the most virulent Klan redoubts, armed Deacons provided security. Dr. King publicly denounced the Deacons aggressive violence. And Mr. Farmer, in an interview with Ebony magazine in 1965, said that some people likened the Deacons to the K.K.K. But Mr. Farmer also pointed out that the Deacons did not lynch people or burn down houses. In a 1965 interview with The New York Times Magazine, he spoke of CORE and the Deacons as a partnership of brothers. NYTimes
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The Deacons for DefenseArmed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement
By Lance Hill
In 1964 a small group of African American men in Jonesboro, Louisiana, defied the nonviolence policy of the mainstream civil rights movement and formed an armed self-defense organization–the Deacons for Defense and Justice–to protect movement workers from vigilante and police violence. With their largest and most famous chapter at the center of a bloody campaign in the Ku Klux Klan stronghold of Bogalusa, Louisiana, the Deacons became a popular symbol of the growing frustration with Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent strategy and a rallying point for a militant working-class movement in the South.
Lance Hill offers the first detailed history of the Deacons for Defense and Justice, who grew to several hundred members and twenty-one chapters in the Deep South and led some of the most successful local campaigns in the civil rights movement. In his analysis of this important yet long-overlooked organization, Hill challenges what he calls “the myth of nonviolence”–the idea that a united civil rights movement achieved its goals through nonviolent direct action led by middle-class and religious leaders. In contrast, Hill constructs a compelling historical narrative of a working-class armed self-defense movement that defied the entrenched nonviolent leadership and played a crucial role in compelling the federal government to neutralize the Klan and uphold civil rights and liberties.
Awards & Distinctions: Honorable Mention, 2005 Outstanding Book Award, Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights. Reviews
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By Adam Fairclough
Hailed as one of the best treatments of the civil rights movement, Race and Democracy is also one of the most comprehensive and detailed studies of the movement at the state level. This far-reaching and dramatic narrative ranges in time from the founding of the New Orleans branch of the NAACP in 1915 to the beginning of Edwin Edwards’s first term as governor in 1972. In his new preface Adam Fairclough brings the narrative up to date, demonstrating the persistence of racial inequalities and the continuing importance of race as a factor in politics. When Hurricane Katrina exposed the race issue in a new context, Fairclough argues, political leaders mishandled the disaster. A deep-seated culture of corruption, he concludes, compromises the ability of public officials to tackle intransigent problems of urban poverty and inadequate schools.
Fairclough takes readers to the grass roots of the movement as it was defiantly advanced and resisted in scores of places like New Orleans shipyards, the voter registrar’s office in Opelousas, and the Little Union Baptist Church in Shreveport. He traces the social networks that sustained black activism, such as Masonic lodges and teachers’ associations, and he also analyzes white responses to the movement as expressed through political factions, trade unions, business lobbies, the Catholic Church, White Citizens Councils, and the Ku Klux Klan.
Complex, rich, and sweeping.Journal of Southern History
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By Michele Alexander
Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama’s political success and Oprah Winfrey’s financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today… than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don’t know the truth about mass incarcerationbut her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.Publishers Weekly
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Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis
Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as “the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field ‘cut their teeth’.”
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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updated 9 January 2012