The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s evokes memories of non-violent resistance to discriminations: marches, bus boycotts and sit-ins at segregated lunch counters and businesses. While many closely associate the movement with non-violence, there was a component that advocated using guns for self-defense. These armed protectors were especially prevalent in the rural South in states such as Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and North Carolina. In communities controlled by the Ku Klux Klan and terrorized by Klan Night Riders, armed African Americans joined together to defend neighbors, friends, family members and activists. Guns played an essential role during the Civil Rights Movement.
‘Citizens Fire Back at Klan’ in Monroe
In 1957, Robert F. Williams, a resident of Monroe, North Carolina, wrote to the NRA and requested to form a chapter. The USMC veteran wanted to protect the members of his community against white supremacists. “We weren’t attacking anybody or fighting against anybody, just protecting ourselves,” Yusef Crowder, a member of the Black Guard, declared in the PBS documentary Negroes with Guns: Rob Williams and Black Power. Within a year, the Black Guard, as the chapter became known, grew to 60 members.
During the summer of 1957, Klan Night Riders attacked local NAACP chapter Vice President Dr. Albert E. Perry’s home. Dozens of Williams’ guards posted up behind sandbags in the NAACP leader’s yard. The motorcade of gun-toting Klansmen expected no resistance but instead met an armed body of men. “We shot it out with the Klan and repelled their attack,” Williams declared afterward. “[T]he Klan didn’t have any more stomach for this type of fight.” Following this skirmish, Norfolk’s Journal and Guide, one of the few newspapers to publicize the event, ran the headline, “Citizens Fire Back at Klan.” The Klan stopped raiding the community after this incident.
‘A Rock of Gibraltar’ in Bogalusa
In March 1965, U.S. Army veterans in Jonesboro, Louisiana, organized The Deacons for Defense and Justice. The group was established, like the Black Guards, to counter Klan violence. Percy Lee Bradford was elected as its first president. The organization provided its members with ammunition, purchased with an NRA-sponsored discount. Members selected the name “Deacons” to embody the role its participants played as servants of the community and advocates of the Christian faith.
Eventually, the disciplined organization shifted its main operation to Bogalusa, Louisiana, and came under the leadership of Charles Sims. The Deacons subsequently launched roughly 50 chapters throughout Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. A 22-year-old white Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) volunteer named Donna, guarded by the Deacons, called the retired WWII army sergeant “a Rock of Gibraltar.” Sims provided Bogalusa’s African American residents, surrounded by a sea of hate and intimidation, a haven. “[W]hat’s really great about the Deacons,” Donna told journalist Shana Alexander in 1965, “is to see the effect they’ve had on their own people.”
When a Man Learns to Use Arms
In July 1965, a caravan of 25 vehicles manned by belligerent Klan members entered the African American neighborhood of Bogalusa. The white supremacists had passed through and terrorized the locals many times before. The Klansmen brandished guns, taunted residents and began to fire at and into random homes. But this time it was different. The Deacons met them with a barrage of bullets, causing the drivers to panic and speed away.
These are just two of the dozens of instances the Deacons and Black Guards opposed the Klan’s subjugation and coercion in the rural South. “When a man learns to use arms,” the outspoken Robert Williams told one reporter, “he gets more self-confidence in himself, and the fact that he knows what to do with arms, he knows the power of arms.” While short-lived, these groups helped to sustain the Civil Rights Movement and protected their communities from intimidation and violence.
*Read part one of this three-part series here and check back on February 26 for the conclusion.