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 "It is easy to see how an oppressed community would rally around this noble belligerence,"

Roy Reed, a New York Times reporter, wrote . . . "The Deacons, Too, Ride By Night."



Books on the Deacons for Defense

The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement (Lance Hill)

The Deacons for Defense and Justice: Defenders of the African American Community in Bogalusa, Louisiana During the 1960's (LaSimba)


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New Orleanian Henry Austan 

Recalls Bogalusa's Deacons for Defense & Justice

By Jonathan Tilove


NEW ORLEANS -- It is the end of February. Another Black History Month is drawing to a close. And it's a good bet that few if any students were assigned to write a paper on Henry Austan.

In the avalanche of scholarship on the civil rights era, Austan—now 62 and living quietly in the Carrollton neighborhood—rates barely a footnote.

"I don't think he's ever mentioned, anywhere, even though it was a turning point," said Lance Hill, Tulane University historian and director of its Southern Institute for Education and Research.

The turning point in question arrived on July 8, 1965, in Bogalusa, in the heart of Ku Klux Klan country. A month after the murder of the parish's first black sheriff's deputy, amid rising tension, marchers confronted white violence that had already left a black girl injured. Austan, a member of an armed civil rights group known as the Deacons for Defense and Justice, stopped the mob by firing a .38 caliber bullet into the chest of a man named Alton Crowe.

Crowe lived to tell about it. Remarkably, so did Austan, who after his arrest was never brought to trial.

Even more remarkable, the shooting did not spark a blood bath of reprisal. Instead, it led the federal government to launch what Hill, in his 2004 book The Deacons for Defense and Justice: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement, describes as a "lethal attack on white resistance in Bogalusa," crippling the Klan and forcing local police for the first time to defend the rights of blacks.

'Noble belligerence'

This and other victories by the Deacons are largely lost in what Hill calls the prevailing "myth" that segregation was vanquished by nonviolence alone, that the path to progress lay in the shedding of innocent black blood so as to provoke Northern outrage and federal intervention. But Austan demonstrated that shedding a little white blood could sometimes do the trick more swiftly, more surely and, for black men long denied their manhood, to far more exhilarating effect.

"It is easy to see how an oppressed community would rally around this noble belligerence," Roy Reed, a New York Times reporter, wrote about the Deacons in the paper's Sunday Magazine in mid-August 1965. The headline: "The Deacons, Too, Ride By Night."

"They were my idea of a civil rights movement," Austan said, sitting at an outdoor cafe and recalling with a fond smile what first drew him to the Deacons. "March quietly, less singing, more shooting."

The Deacons were founded in 1964 in Jonesboro. By the summer of 1965, they were spreading elsewhere and grabbing attention—Time, Newsweek, Ebony and Jet after Jet after Jet.

The Sunday after Crowe was shot, The New York Times had a page-one story about a federal judge ordering Bogalusa police to stop harassing black protesters and start protecting them. In The Week in Review section was a huge photo of Austan's arrest. And for good measure, the Sunday Magazine featured an essay by Erskine Caldwell, author of Tobacco Road, about "the Deep South's Other Venerable Tradition"—the vicious violence visited upon black males by white males, beginning in boyhood.

Quick tempered

By temperament, Austan was well-suited for his role in history.

Born in New Orleans, he was raised in Baton Rouge, where as a boy he threw bricks at the white men prowling the black neighborhood for prostitutes. He came to Bogalusa in 1964 with a job selling insurance. He had already been in the Air Force and served two years in Leavenworth for slashing a fellow serviceman who called him "nigger."

"I'm not bragging about it," Austan said. "I was way too quick-tempered in those days."

Almost as soon as he arrived in Bogalusa, dressed in his nice suits, the Klan was gunning for him, he said. When a bullet whizzed through his car as he was driving, tattering his tie, he knew they were serious. The next time they gave chase, he was ready, pulling into a pasture, dimming his lights and opening fire with a double-barreled shotgun and a .38.

Then he joined the Deacons.

"I went to talk with Charles Sims, who was the head of the Deacons," Austan remembers, "and he said, 'You're the (one) that shot them white folks last night, aren't you?' I said, 'Maybe, I don't know for sure.' "

When the shot he fired at Crowe rang out, he said, "the line of police all turned their backs because they just assumed that the white people had the guns and they didn't want to be a witness."

"I really felt sorry for (Crowe) after I shot him because he had this incredulous look on his face," he said. "When they first locked me up in a cell in Bogalusa I thought, 'Well, Angola, warm up the electric chair. Here I come.' "

Instead, he was spirited off to the Orleans Parish Prison, where Louis Lomax, a black journalist with a TV show in Los Angeles, bailed him out in exchange for an interview.

"They never wanted to take me to trial," Austan said. "I don't know how much of a turning point it was. What it meant was that all over the South a lot of white people realized that there are some black men who will shoot you in broad daylight, and not to rob you either.

"With Watts exploding a few weeks later, it made a lot of people think, especially at the federal level, that they had to intercede at a greater level, or there was going to be hell to pay in this country."

Leadership is key

Austan would rather be remembered for his lecturing, organizing, and writing in the years that followed. He would rather talk about the fate of New Orleans, where he returned to live in 1989 from Dayton, Ohio—"getting old, too damn cold"—and because he missed the "flavor."

After Hurricane Katrina, much of that flavor is gone with the wind, he said. "I don't think we'll ever be able to recover New Orleans as we knew it," he said. "We don't have the leadership. The civil rights movement had good leadership: King, Joseph Lowery, Malcolm X."

And, Hill would add, the Deacons, who he believes offer black New Orleanians seeking to reclaim their city a useful model of a disciplined, militant, homegrown movement.

"It's not about armed self-defense," Hill said. "It's about the power of self-organization, of making up your minds you are no longer going to depend on the federal government, you're not going to worry about whether people like you or think you are deserving, but what you are going to do to demand what is rightly yours and make life difficult for people until they make concessions."

Source: Newhouse News Service. Jonathan Tilove. "New Orleans man symbolizes violent side of 1960s movement Shooting in Bogalusa seen as turning point" (Monday, February 27, 2006

Jonathan Tilove can be contacted at Newhouse News

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Robert Hicks, Leader in Armed Rights Group, Dies at 81—It 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 Defense
Armed 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

posted 3 March 2006

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Deacons for Defense

(The film)


Race and Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana, 1915-1972 (1995)

By Adam Fairclough

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