Did civil rights need Deacons for Defense?

Still from the 2005 Showtime movie "Deacons for Defense," via imfdb.

I didn’t catch up with Bob Moses until 1964, when I joined the training staff for Freedom Summer. Bob led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s entry into Mississippi in 1961, which meant three years of facing a repressive situation that makes the U.S. of 2012 seem like a cakewalk for activists by comparison. In those days, even registering to vote in Mississippi could get you killed in the broad light of day if you were African American. SNCC workers often lived together in houses, sometimes in isolated rural areas. They had no official protection; local police were likely to be members of the Ku Klux Klan. They took precautions of many kinds, but they shunned security culture, believing it would reduce their safety and effectiveness.

I remember asking Bob the question that was on many activists’ minds across the U.S. then: How had SNCC workers survived for three years in the most terrifying situation in the country?

“The only way we’ve stayed alive,” he said, “was that we didn’t keep guns in our Freedom Houses, and everyone knew it.”

“I don’t get it,” I replied. “I don’t see the mechanism. I don’t see how that actually protects you.”

“Maybe this story will help you understand,” Bob said in his low-key, patient tone of voice. He was interested in teaching math; I guess he was used to students not getting it.

“A worker in a small town hardware store shows up at the store one morning all excited. He tells his boss, the owner, that ‘the guys’ — meaning the local KKK — have decided to kill the SNCC workers and burn down their Freedom House on the outskirts of town. They plan to do it that night. His boss says, ‘No you’re not.’ The worker is stunned, knowing that his boss is active in the White Citizens Council and hates SNCC as much as he does. The boss goes on: ‘You guys have no idea what the consequences would be. Mississippi already has enough economic trouble. Getting investment from the North is really tough. So you kill up a bunch of niggers, and it’s all over television in the North, and Mississippi looks to the banks up there like an out-of-control shithole of an investment. There’s no way I’m going to let you do it.’”

I walked away from Bob marveling at the political sophistication of the SNCC strategy. They were using their own vulnerability to force the middle and owning class White Citizens Council to control the working class KKK and keep them — the hated SNCC workers — alive.

We had that conversation during the 1964 training at the beginning of the summer, and I saw that this extremely dangerous project — an “invasion” of Northern white college students into Klan-ridden Mississippi — was an extension SNCC’s proven strategy. 1964’s Freedom Summer was designed by SNCC to add the vulnerability of Northern (mostly white) students to the equation, increasing the space for SNCC activity by drawing even more attention from state and (finally) federal power holders to the task of letting freedom fighters survive.

Freedom Summer did exactly that, with only three civil rights workers killed and a far more robust civil rights movement by August. In fact, the project was so successful that the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party became able by August to contest nationally with the state’s all-white, traditional Democratic Party.

Rural and small town Louisiana in 1965 was, like Mississippi, Klan territory. Local black people in Jonesboro and Bogalusa, assisted by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), struggled to make gains in civil rights against racist resistance. A group of black veterans found themselves unable to tolerate the violence they saw perpetrated on the nonviolent demonstrations, and worked out agreements to bring their guns to demonstrations and serve as security guards, threatening violence against whites who wanted to hurt the activists. The group’s name became Deacons for Defense, and they gained various degrees of recognition from CORE and SNCC.

It is clear that this group of bodyguards did, on multiple occasions, deter white violence and protect demonstrators. Moreover, they sometimes shot their guns to chase away perpetrators. Historian Christopher B. Strain relays this report from Joanne Grant’s book on Black Protest:

On a sultry July evening in 1965, a cavalcade of cars driven by members of the Ku Klux Klan barreled into a predominately black neighborhood of Bogalusa, Louisiana, as they had done on countless nights before. The twenty-five car motorcade sometimes sped, sometimes cruised ominously through the streets. Leaning out of car windows, Klansmen taunted black residents, hurled racial epithets, insulted black women, and brandished pistols and rifles. When the Klansmen fired randomly into the homes of black Bogalusa residents, a fusillade of bullets met them in return. The unwelcome visitors quickly fled the neighborhood. It was the Klan’s first encounter with the Deacons for Defense and Justice.

The Deacons were reportedly careful not to step over the line from protection to retaliation; there are no recorded instances of them attacking whites for previous assaults on blacks. They offer a clear experiment of boundaried service analogous to that of security guards, with careful regard for lawfulness even though they knew that, as blacks, they could not themselves expect equal justice under the law.

Most people looking at that experiment would find no problem with it. The pacifist James Farmer, then leader of CORE, made a public statement saying he was not about to offer a moral challenge to local people for accepting the protection of the Deacons. Even if we accept Farmer’s point, we will learn more from the experiment if we ask not moral but strategic questions.

There’s no doubt that threatening violence has stopped many people from doing bad things; probably every reader of this article can name incidents from their own experience. That’s the snapshot: Someone is about to do something bad and stops because violence is threatened if they carry it out.

Strategy, however, is not about snapshots; it’s about the movie. The film starts with a snapshot and then shows the unfolding of events, the series of consequences caused by the dynamics unleashed in the initial snapshot.

The strategic difficulty about deterrence is that it works… until it doesn’t. Everyone knows stories in which a threat did not stop a bad thing from happening, and most of us know stories of a threat leading to a counter-threat, leading to a larger counter-threat, and so on.

What the Deacons’ story doesn’t show us is what happens when the other side organizes a more violent counter-move, and the local situation shifts from a social movement pressing for equality to become a war between two racial groups. No one wanted that, including Charles Sims, the best-known founder and leader of the Deacons, who believed that the most effective way to gain civil rights was by pressure from nonviolent direct action. His vision was for the Deacons to be a sideshow, not the main attraction. Keeping it a sideshow, however, depends on a lot of rationality on the other side, and on white racists holding on to that rationality if the anti-racist movement is getting stronger and closer to winning. To me that sounds more like fantasy than strategy.

The Global Nonviolent Action Database includes civil rights campaigns that failed (most notably, the Albany, Georgia, campaign of 1962) because they didn’t find a way to use the jiu-jitsu that sociologists call “the paradox of repression” — the use of the segregationists’ violence against their own privilege. Yet SNCC survived in the most dangerous period of its presence in Mississippi, 1961–63, by using a sophisticated nonviolent strategy. SNCC and its allies went on to win with a minimum of casualties in 1964 when they took power in Mississippi politics by using the presence of hundreds of Northern white students to protect them.

The more deeply we look into the actual history of the civil rights movement, the more puzzling becomes the choice of some to adopt violent defense. A decade before the Deacons for Defense appeared, in Montgomery, Alabama, the KKK decided to do an intimidation caravan during the Montgomery bus boycott. The black neighborhood got wind of it, and chose a different tactic: The residents sat on their porches drinking lemonade, in party mode, as if watching a pleasant and amusing parade going by. The Klansmen turned away from the neighborhood in short order.

Why, after 10 years of success for a nonviolent strategy when the resistance was most hardcore, was there a shift in 1965 to a violent defensive strategy, with SNCC inviting the Deacons of Defense to guard the Meredith March Against Fear? Why give up what was working?

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