Deacons for Defense

Most of the story we remember of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s centers around the philosophy of non-violence espoused by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the major civil rights organizations like the NAACP and the SCLC.  A few historians give emphasis to a very different part of the movement in the South, however — a movement that was based on armed self-defense by local people.  An earlier post discusses the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, another organization that featured armed self-defense against white violence as part of the struggle for political and civil rights.  Here I will reflect on the Deacons for Defense and Lance Hill’s history of this movement The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement.

First, the silence surrounding armed self-defense.  The primary narratives of the Civil Rights movement do not give attention to the Deacons or the LCFO in the early years of the movement (the early 1960s).  Taylor Branch gives great attention to the civil rights struggles in Mississippi in Parting the Waters : America in the King Years 1954-63, including the extensive occurrence of Klan violence against civil rights workers and activists.  But the Deacons for Defense are not mentioned at any point.  There are occasional references to readiness for armed resistance to white violence; for example, following the cold-blooded murder of civil rights activist Herbert Lee, Branch notes that SNCC activist Bob Moses was uncomfortable with the guns stockpiled by E. W. Steptoe in Mississippi.

Steptoe continued to let Moses stay with him in his house across the highway from the Hurst home, but Moses felt uncomfortable there because of the guns. The Steptoe farm always had been a minor arsenal, and Steptoe had a reputation as a magician who knew how to conceal an extra pistol or two. Now, after the Lee murder, Moses kept finding new guns under pillows and in bedside tables. The atmosphere was thick with the anticipation of a frontier shoot-out. Moses, not wishing to impose his own nonviolence on Steptoe, nor to have his own presence ignite the violence, retreated briefly to McComb. The aftershock of the Lee murder was pervasive there too, and it added to the tension that was building over the continued jailing of the four young sit-in students. (511) 

But there is no discussion of the self-defense movement in Mississippi and the ideas that underlay the philosophy of self-defense that were the core of the Deacons for Defense. One possible reason for this has to do with how the narrative was framed at the time.  The mainstream civil rights movement itself did not approve of the self-defense movement, and its leaders shaped the narrative towards moral protest and the philosophy of non-violence.

Another possible reason for neglect of the self-defense organizations that emerged in the South early 1960s is the idea that these organizations were harmful to the progress of the struggle for political and civil rights, and that violent conflicts between police, national guard, klansmen, and deacons were likely to lead to a bloodbath throughout the black population.  (This is roughly the view that Doug McAdam offered when I asked him why there was no discussion of these movements in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, 2nd Edition.) The idea here is that the balance of power so greatly favored the forces of white supremacy that armed self-defense was likely to produce horrible retaliation.

Lance Hill’s view is different from both of these.  He believes that the Deacons had a measurable and positive effect on the struggle to break open the system of white supremacy in Mississippi and Louisiana, and that, absent this force, there is a likelihood that Jim Crow would have prevailed.

Real victories for the civil rights movement at the local level were scarce in the Deep South and virtually nonexistent in Louisiana up through 1964. Severe repression by local authorities and the Klan, combined with economic pressure by white business elites, made it difficult to end segregation and discrimination even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. But at the beginning of 1965 the Deacons and the Jonesboro movement stood posed to accomplish something that no other local or national organization had done before in the Deep South: force a segregationist governor to directly intervene to the benefit of the civil rights movement. (63)

Hill refers to the “myth of nonviolence” in his conclusion. His point isn’t that the strategies of nonviolence that were pursued by the NAACP, SCLC, and SNCC were inherently ineffective; instead, his view is that they were fundamentally incomplete.  If the reality of armed self-defense didn’t exist, then the moral authority of protest and civil disobedience would have been insufficient to change the political and economic realities of the Jim Crow South. 

Nonviolence as the motive force for change became a reassuring myth of American moral redemption — a myth that assuaged white guilt by suggesting that racism was not intractable and deeply embedded in American life, that racial segregation and discrimination were handily overcome by orderly, polite protest and a generous American conscience, and that the pluralistic system for resolving conflicts between competing interests had prevailed. The system had worked and the nation was redeemed. 

It was a comforting but vacant fiction. In the end, segregation yielded to force as much as it did to moral suasion. Violence in the form of street riots and armed self-defense played a fundamental role in uprooting segregation and economic and political discrimination from 1963 to 1965. 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 and the obstructions of terrorists and complicit local law enforcement agencies neutralized. (259)

Lance Hill’s work is the primary source that other scholars use when writing about the Deacons; but what is at issue here is precisely the validity of Hill’s overall judgment about the critical role played by this movement.  Other careful historians have come to the opposite conclusion — that the force of the civil rights movement came from its effectiveness as a mass movement grounded in local mobilization and led by leaders committed to nonviolence. So how would we try to sort out the actual impact of the Deacons and other such movements?

The answer, it would seem, is that we need further detailed historical research by other historians to uncover more of this hidden story.  Annelieke Dirks makes an important contribution to this part of the story in “Between Threat and Reality: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Emergence of Armed Self-Defense in Clarksdale and Natchez, Mississippi, 1960-1965” (link). Dirks focuses the account on local mobilization in Mississippi, which provides a vantage point from which to assess the relative importance of national leaders’ commitment to nonviolence and local use of armed self-defense. Here is how Dirks puts the approach:

In what follows, I focus on how local branches of the NAACP in Mississippi used a combination of nonviolent protest, economic pressure, radical speech, and armed self-defense to further their political goals and defend their communities during the height of the modern civil rights movement, between 1960 and 1965. Two different towns, Clarksdale in the Delta in the Northwest and Natchez in the Southwest, and two different NAACP branches receive detailed attention. I show that the emergence and usage of informal and formal forms of armed self-defense in these towns was not just a question of violent or non- violent ideology within the civil rights movement, and that self-defense was not embraced only by organizations like SNCC or CORE. Ultimately the feasibility of armed self-defense was related to economic, political, social, and per- sonal factors in local communities, and its use was also considered or employed by NAACP chapters. By demonstrating this, I hope to counter the portrayal of the NAACP as a moderate, middle-class, and nonviolent civil rights organization, as well as stress the complex and localized dynamics of the modern civil rights movement. (75-76)

And Dirks argues that the armed self-defense posture of activists in these parts of Mississippi made a material difference to the outcomes:

The protection of the Deacons gave the civil rights campaign in Natchez a much needed boost because the Deacons also organized internal movement discipline. While the boycott in Clarksdale was enforced through calling out names of violators during mass meetings, the Deacons organized vigilante groups of Black women—and some men—who attacked shoppers and destroyed their groceries. These female vigilantes also beat up domestic workers who gave information to their white employers. This internal disciplining made the boycott almost completely effective. In December 1965, after just four months of boycotting and broad-scale community organizing, city govern- ment and local businessmen decided to give in and agreed to all of the demands of the Black community. Evers called it “the greatest concession” of the civil rights movement, and he was right as far as Mississippi was concerned. While the movement in Clarksdale quietly phased out and needed federal intervention to open voter registration to African Americans, Natchez had managed to exert enough—armed—pressure on the white power structure to create a total collapse of Jim Crow. “The Natchez campaign was the single greatest community victory for the civil rights movement in Mississippi, though historians have never given it the credit it deserves,” asserts Lance Hill. “The organizers united and inspired a community to courageous action . . . and secured dramatic legal and economic reforms. In comparison, the projects in McComb, Clarksdale and Jackson failed to win any significant demands and frequently left the black community demoralized and in disarray.” (91)

 There is a clear logic to the idea that the non-violent movement needed support from men and women who were willing to face armed attackers with their own guns, and Hill offers a number of strong examples of incidents where klan and police thugs were forced to back off. But the question of whether, all things considered, we need to reassess the way the civil rights movement succeeded in cracking Jim Crow really needs more detailed and careful research, to follow on upon the groundbreaking case that Lance Hill has made.

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