The civil rights movement will rightfully be the subject of much discussion this Black History Month. However, one element of this history that tends to receive very little attention was the interplay in the movement between nonviolent tactics and self-defense.
While some civil rights leaders, such as Dr. King and James Lawson, embraced and preached nonviolence from a moral and philosophical perspective, this was not true for many activists, who accepted it instead as a tactic. Recognizing this, even Dr. King often stressed the strategic and practical reasons for using nonviolence, rather than its philosophical merits.
Since the turn of the century, Black activists like Ida B. Wells, Henry McNeal Turner and others had advocated for armed responses to Jim Crow terrorism. In fact, in the long history of the Black freedom struggle—in all its phases—the concept of self-defense on an individual and community level had been understood as a basic right.
This did not disappear during the era of the civil rights Movement. In fact, on many occasions, Black southerners continued to exercise self-defense to protect their struggle in the face of white power terrorists. This happened not in opposition to, but in conjunction with, nonviolent protest. It was often armed defense, or at least the threat of force, that saved civil rights workers from attacks from white supremacists.
Two particular sets of Freedom Fighters should be noted in a discussion of the self-defense tradition and civil rights: the grouping around the Monroe County, N.C. chapter of the NAACP, led by Robert F Williams; and Louisiana’s Deacons for Defense and Justice.
Robert F. Williams and the Monroe County NAACP
Robert F. Williams had a rebellious attitude toward white supremacy for his entire adult life. In the 1940s, Williams immigrated to Detroit from North Carolina to work in the war industries. While in Detroit, he became part of movements for racial and economic equality led by communists and other radicals. After serving in the Korean War, Williams returned to Monroe County, N.C., later becoming head of the local NAACP. He built a chapter composed primarily of Black workers, including many veterans who were exceptionally militant in their temperament and fed up with racism.
The Monroe NAACP chapter engaged in a variety of struggles seeking desegregation in the later part of the 1950s. Unlike other trends in the movement, Williams’ group often openly armed itself to ward off trouble.
Monroe County faced a truly vicious Ku Klux Klan organization led by Catfish Cole. When the NAACP sought to desegregate a swimming pool, Cole stated that any African American going “to a white swimming pool is not looking for a bath … he is looking for a funeral.” Amidst an escalation of Klan violence throughout the state, Williams and his counterparts began to arm themselves more systematically, developing military-like organization, digging trenches and other strong-points in their community, and setting up a rifle range.
In October 1957, after a very large rally, the Klan decided to threaten Monroe’s Black community by assembling a large armed motorcade. To their surprise, the well-organized forces of Monroe’s NAACP let loose a hail of gunfire, causing Klan members to flee at high speed in what quickly became a rout. Clearly terrified of the implications of armed Blacks ready to fight terrorism, the next day white city leaders banned KKK motorcades. The Klansman—true cowards—never again returned for night rides in Monroe County’s Black community.
Williams later gained national attention defending a group of Monroe youths who were accused of molesting a young white girl, and faced a local lynch mob. Such bold stances drew criticism from more moderate civil rights forces, including the NAACP national leadership, who did not want to take on controversial cases and abhorred Williams’ ready acceptance of assistance from communists and Black nationalists.
In the 1960s, Williams quickly became a magnet for those around the country who supported the right of Black people to arm themselves in the face of terror. His book “Negroes With Guns” became something of a manifesto to young militants convinced of the principle of self-defense. At the same time, Williams did not eschew nonviolent tactics, engaging in sit-ins in Monroe for example. Williams was later forced into exile—going to Cuba and then China—after playing a key role in organizing protection for nonviolent demonstrators in Monroe. At his 1996 funeral, Rosa Parks, who is now heralded as an icon of nonviolence, told the audience that she had long admired Williams’ courage and commitment.
The overlooked role of the Deacons for Defense
Civil Rights demonstrations in Bogalusa, La. had found relatively little success in the early 1960s. By 1965, the seeming intractability of Jim Crow brought activists from the Congress for Racial Equality to town. A victory in Bogalusa would have been significant for the national movement since the local Ku Klux Klan was notorious for its bold acts of terrorism and—as it was across the South—was fully integrated into the local power structure. A victory in Bogalousa would be a sign that the movement could win anywhere.
Demonstrations in the city’s downtown were first broken up by mobs, and in June, white supremacists shot the first Black sheriff’s deputy while he was on patrol.
Behind the scenes, a group of Black men calling themselves the Deacons for Defense and Justice started meeting, discussing tactics and slowly building an arsenal. The Deacons’ style was understated, and they were essentially an underground organization, with only a few leaders publically proclaiming their membership. Nonetheless, they expanded quickly throughout the South and even had a chapter in Illinois. In particular, the Deacons sought to organize in areas where the Klan was strongest. In cities like Bogalusa, they semi-secretly guarded the offices and persons of civil rights activists.
In 1966, the Deacons drew national attention over their participation in the multi-day March Against Fear through Mississippi, during which the slogan “Black Power” made its first appearance. The Deacons’ participation was controversial because it did not fully conform to the image of nonviolence. But they were ultimately allowed to remain; they hung off to the side of the main march, securing the route against snipers and ambushes. The Deacons also provided armed escorts to those traveling to local airports at night.
While the full truth may never be known, government authorities—and most likely the Klan—feared that the Deacons may have been armed with grenades and automatic weapons, which served as powerful deterrents to white supremacists considering offensive action.
As quickly as they rose, however, the Deacons faded into obscurity. As the legal phase of the civil rights movement came to completion, the Deacons seemingly disappeared. Some of its leaders continued their activism while many of its members went back to their daily lives.
Robert F. Williams and the Deacons were not a bizarre exception to the movement. They reflected and were a response to their local conditions. Deacon leaders frequently praised “nonviolent” leaders, and their members often participated unarmed in demonstrations. But, at the same time, in the face of terrorism that had the ability to derail the protest movement in small Klan strongholds, the Deacons and the Monroe County NAACP used their weapons, and their organization, to level the playing field.
Above all, it must be noted that self-defense was a deeply rooted part of Black southern society, in which having a gun, for both hunting and protection, was more the norm than the exception. As a massive movement arose to demand equal rights for Black Americans, many of those with arms rose to its defense, either overtly or behind the scenes. Rather than a serious tactical dispute between violence and nonviolence, the actions of Williams, the Deacons and many like them played a crucial role in the work of the Southern freedom movement.