Welcome to the “Black History Month” edition of the Evolving Man Project’s ‘Evolved Men of the Week’ profile. Today we will highlight historical black men who embodied what it meant to be an evolved man, famous and non-famous alike. The world needs to know their stories and deeds. This week’s honor goes to the armed civil rights group, the Deacons for Defense.
On July 10, 1964, a group of African American men in Jonesboro, Louisiana led by Earnest “Chilly Willy” Thomas and Frederick Douglas Kirkpatrick founded the group known as The Deacons for Defense and Justice to protect members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) against Ku Klux Klan violence. Most of the “Deacons” were veterans of World War II and the Korean War.
The Jonesboro chapter organized its first affiliate chapter in nearby Bogalusa, Louisiana, led by Charles Sims, A.Z. Young and Robert Hicks. Eventually, they organized the third chapter in Louisiana. The Deacon’s tense confrontation with the Klan in Bogalusa was crucial in forcing the federal government to intervene on behalf of the local African American community. The national attention they garnered also persuaded state and national officials to initiate efforts to neutralize the Klan in that area of the Deep South. The Deacons became a famous 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.
Civil rights leader James Farmer, who marched in Bogalusa, asked:
“Who or what could control the haters? The governor? The president? The spirit of Gandhi? Or the barrel of a gun!”
In February 1965, after an article in The New York Times about the Deacons in Jonesboro, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover became interested in the group. His office sent a memo to its Louisiana field offices: “Because of the potential for violence indicated, you are instructed to immediately initiate an investigation of the DDJ (Deacons for Defense and Justice).” Eventually exposed in the late 1970s, the FBI established the COINTELPRO program, through which its agents were involved in many illegal activities against organizations that Hoover deemed “a threat to the American way.”
The Robert “Bob” Hicks House in Bogalusa is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Robert “Bob” Hicks Foundation is in the process of restoring and preserving the house. A civil rights museum in Bogalusa opened in 2018; it explained the role of the local Deacons for Defense and Justice in the city’s history.
The Deacons for Defense were the precursor to Black Panther Party and other armed militant organizations that formed during the tumultuous Black Power Era in the mid to late 1960s. They understood Dr. King’s message of racial unity and nonviolent resistance. But understood that armed defense was the best alternative to nonviolent resistance in the face of violent racists like the KKK and corrupt racist police precincts in league with the Klan and local elected officials. The Deacons for Defense served as part of the long history of black resistance to white supremacy. Their legacy shouldn’t be forgotten. Today we honor the Deacons for Defense as our Evolved Men of the week.