The Deacons

November 21, 2016

This is a story about a forgotten part of civil-rights history that is still very much alive. In 1965, a group of black men in Louisiana called the Deacons for Defense and Justice took up arms against the Klan. Now a daughter of the Deacons wants to start a museum in their honor, but not everyone in town wants their story told.

Go to GimletMedia.com/FallSeason to subscribe to Undone and Gimlet’s other new podcasts.

Credits

Undone is hosted by Pat Walters.

This episode was reported and produced by Eric Eddings, along with Julia DeWitt and Emanuele Berry. Our senior producer is Larissa Anderson. We are edited by Alan Burdick and Caitlin Kenney. Isabella Kulkarni is our intern.

The show is mixed and scored by Bobby Lord. Additional music by Nate Sandberg of Plied Sound. Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris.

Special thanks to Maude Eddings and Ward Colin.

Undone was conceived in collaboration with our friends at Retro Report, the documentary film series that connects iconic news events of the past to today. You can find them here.

Selected References

http://content.wisconsinhistory.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p15932coll2/id/53842/rec/12

https://searchworks.stanford.edu/view/4085340

https://roberthicksfoundation.squarespace.com/

 

 

 

Show transcript

PAT WALTERS: From Gimlet Media, this is Undone. I’m Pat Walters.

Our story this week happens in a small town in Louisiana called Bogalusa. It’s about an hour and a half north of New Orleans. And the story’s about a woman named Barbara Hicks-Collins. She’s a 69-year-old retired nurse, who grew up in town and lives with her mother.

And a few years ago, the night before Martin Luther King Day, this thing happened to Barbara that was both totally shocking and for her, disturbingly familiar. Barbara says she’d stayed up late that night and she’d fallen asleep on the couch. Here’s Barbara,

BARBARA: I had a knock on the door at three o’clock in the morning. Very loud. And I went to the door. And I didn’t even think, I knew my daddy would have said something about that, but I didn’t think. I just went and opened the door. And my car was up in flames.

Barbara’s mom, who was in her 80s at the time, came running out of the house and grabbed the garden hose to go after the fire. The fire department came, put out the fire. Barbara says an investigator told her that the fire was probably sparked by a malfunction in the car’s electrical system. But then a friend of hers who had come over to help out noticed something else,

BARBARA: And he looked at the top of this house, and there was a burnt area there.

The fire was an arson. Investigators figured out that what had happened is that someone had thrown a box of gas-soaked paper towels on the roof. Then lit the car on fire. And also poured gas in front of the house.

BARBARA: So whoever burnt the car tried to burn the house down again.

This was the second time. A few years earlier the house had burned down when Barbara wasn’t home. She suspected arson, but the police never investigated. She and her mother rebuilt the house in the same spot. And this time,

BARBARA: It didn’t ignite because we have a fire-resistant roof.

They were prepared.

And the reason Barbara thinks this keeps happening to her is surprising. She says it’s probably because she’s trying to start a museum in Bogalusa. A museum that would highlight a moment in the 1960s that some people in town don’t want to admit ever happened.

BARBARA: I get the message, it’s like why you bringing all this up again? Why are you bringing it up again? And it’s like [sigh].

The story Barbara’s trying to tell with this museum is a Civil Rights movement story, but it’s one that complicates the version most of us know. The one about leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. leading nonviolent protests. Barbara’s story is about a group of black men who responded differently. A group of men who fought back against the white people trying to deny them their rights. And fought back on a scale that nobody had ever seen before in the South and really wouldn’t see after them. They were called the Deacons for Defense and Justice.

PAT: And this all goes back to this one night in the winter of 1965. Barbara was a teenager. The Civil Rights Act had passed the year before. But if you were living in Bogalusa, you’d wouldn’t have known it. Our producer Eric Eddings tells the story.

ERIC EDDINGS: My mom actually grew up in Bogalusa, and she remembers, as any black person would, the town was completely segregated. Separate everything. And it was a big Klan town. People said if you were white and you weren’t in the KKK yourself, your neighbor, or your friend, or your family member was. They basically controlled the town. And they stopped any civil rights activity from happening in Bogalusa. If you even talked about civil rights, the Klan came after you. They’d burn a cross in your yard, shoot at your house, or send you death threats.

But that winter, things were about to change.

Barbara’s dad Robert, Bob Hicks, was involved with this group in town called the Bogalusa Civic and Voter’s League. The Voter’s League was the major force behind the Civil Rights Movement in Bogalusa. And there were lots of important people in the Voter’s League but for this story, we’re following the Hicks family.

So Bob Hicks pushed to bring in a couple of white volunteers from the civil rights group CORE to help desegregate the town. And on the night of February first, they needed a place to stay.

BARBARA: They could not go to a hotel or motel because they wouldn’t have lasted the night. So my father said, you can come to my house.

He knew this was dangerous. Steve Miller, was one of the volunteers.

STEVE: So somewhere after the sun goes down, we go over to the Hicks’ house.

So Barbara, her family, and these two volunteers are sitting around the dinner table.

BARBARA: Just talking about the day and they were eating and just going over details.

And we heard a knock at the door. Very loud. You know it stops you. My father went to the door and it was the chief of police and some deputies. And they said, Robert we need to talk to you. And he said, come in. And they came in, and he said, put those people out of your house. We are here to escort them out of town.

Everyone in the room knew this was a threat, because lots of cops were rumored to be in the KKK.

BARBARA: And my father told them that, these are guests in my house. They can stay as long as they want.

And he said, there’s mob on Columbia Street and I can’t control ‘em. If you don’t put ‘em out of the house by morning, nobody in this house will be alive, and this house will be burned down.

One of the volunteers said, hey, you’re the police, protect us.

REESE: I’ll never will forget the answer that the police give him.

That’s Reese Perkins, a friend of Bob’s who was there that night.

REESE: They told him we have 19,000 whites to protect and we didn’t have time, this is just the words he said we ain’t got time to protect you niggas.

BARBARA: And so my daddy hesitated, and he said no, I will not put ‘em out. So the sheriff and his deputies left and my father and mother immediately went into a mode that I had never seen before. We had a list of black men on the wall, the telephone numbers. And he said, go immediately and start calling these people and tell them to come to the house. Bring your gun and bring your ammunition.

Before you leave, make sure you call another black man and tell him to come. And my mom said, I’m gonna call somebody to come and get my children, because I don’t want my children to be killed. But as far as me, I’m gonna stay with Bob.

A family friend put Barbara and her siblings in a car, and as they drove away she looked out the back window.

BARBARA: Black men had already started coming. They were coming through the alleys, across the street, from different directions. Walking some in cars, with guns. Just that quick.

Twenty five men came that night. They brought their guns, and held them as they crouched by the windows and laid on the roof.

These men would become Deacons for Defense and Justice. But that night they were still just friends and neighbors. Friends and neighbors who stayed up all night staring into the dark, waiting for a mob to come.

The mob never came that night. Turned out the sheriff had been bluffing.

But Barbara’s dad and the Voter’s League weren’t intimidated. They were determined to keep pushing for integration in Bogalusa. So they started following the playbook set by Civil Rights activists all over the South.

ARCH: Now put on your walking shoes for tomorrow

This is a local leader named Charles Simms at a Voter’s League meeting.

ARCH: We shall march. We shall sing. We shall demonstrate in any form or fashion. We can’t turn around now. We are too far along now to turn around.

And soon Barbara says they were marching a lot.

BARBARA: We marched everyday. Our life was, you go to school, you come home, you get as much homework done as possible and you go pick up a picket sign and you go to the march. That’s – that was our life.

And every time they marched, Barbara and the other activists were attacked.

BARBARA: They’d throw snakes in.

PAT: Throw Snakes in? Snakes?

BARBARA: Yeah, snakes, ball rotten eggs. Whatever.

But Barbara and the other marchers never fought back. They were told not to. Nonviolence was the strategy Martin Luther King taught. The idea was: if you don’t fight back, you’ll show how violent and brutal these white people are.

BARBARA: King believed you take the licks, and the dog biting, and you take the fire, you take it all, and when white America sees it will shame them and they will come out and they will do the right thing.

This was a painful thing to do, but Barbara and the others thought if things got really bad, the police would step in. But this was Bogalusa, where lots of cops were rumored to be in the KKK. So that didn’t happen.

BARBARA: They never did anything. The police never, never protected us.

Even though the police just stood by, the KKK freaked out.

They called in thousands of Klan supporters from all over the state. And that spring Bogalusa became one of the biggest hubs of KKK activity in the South. It came to be known as Klantown USA. And attacks on Black people there spiked.

BARBARA: It got to the point where, you see blood running down the streets where they have attacked us, and somebody’s gonna get killed.

Barbara remembers her dad saying something’s gotta change.

BARBARA: He said, we cannot continue this route.

ERIC: The nonviolence?

BARBARA: Yeah, we can’t we can’t do that. So what are we gonna do?

Barbara’s dad and the Voters League had an idea: They’d heard about a group of men in Jonesboro, Louisiana, who had armed themselves to protect the Black community from the Klan. They were called The Deacons for Defense and Justice. So Bob Hicks, and the League’s president AZ Young, called up the Deacons and said we want to start a chapter.

REESE: And that’s when they organized the Deacons for Defense and Justice here in

Bogalusa to give protection.

That’s Reese Perkins, one of the original Deacons.

FLETCHER: We had to protect ourselves.

Another original Deacon, Fletcher Anderson. And a thing about the Deacons, they were organized.

REESE: Just like the police.

But for the part of town the police were not protecting.

REESE: Charles Simms was the prez. Bob Hicks was the VP. And I was made Sergeant of Arms.

FLETCHER: I was a lieutenant.

They worked in teams. They had scheduled patrols. They even coordinated with walkie-talkies.

REESE: And we would ride through the Black neighborhoods.

People said the Deacons could be anywhere in 15 minutes.

FLETCHER: If we see somebody that seemed unfriendly in that neighborhood, we would make sure they didn’t stay that long.

And they did this because the Klan was known for something called night rides where they’d drive through black neighborhoods and burn crosses, beat people up and shoot at people’s houses.

REESE: We stopped one car one night, there were four of them and all of em had four rifles.

And when the night riders made it past the Deacon’s patrols and did start shooting, the Deacons shot back.

REESE: Me and Bob were side by side shooting.

RICKEY: Most of the members of the Deacons were military people. They had been in World War II.

This is Rickey Hill, a professor who’s studied the Deacons. He also grew up in Bogalusa.

RICKEY: They knew how to use guns they knew organizational tactics.

FLETCHER: Some of them were servicemen. And some of them just, just did what they had to do.

But despite the patrols and the shoot-outs, the Deacons were very clear about how they used violence. Only in self-defense.

FLETCHER: We never did go out to start nothing.

REESE: But we were there to stop anything that started.

BARBARA: If you come and shoot in my house and try to kill my family, we gonna shoot

back.

Most Deacons kept their membership a secret to avoid being targeted by the Klan.

REESE: It’s never known and never will be known how many Deacons there was.

Some say there were 200 Deacons. Others more. But they gave the impression that they were everywhere. And according to Charles Cobb, a former activist and author, this worked.

CHARLES: Their presence made it clear that not everybody was gonna be nonviolent. And that held a lot of the violence in check.

Knowing the Deacons were out there put the Klan on edge.

BARBARA: Daddy say, they think a little different then.

Take cross burnings. Before the Deacons, this was a leisurely activity for the Klan. They’d show up at someone’s house, light the cross, and stand there to watch it burn. But now the Deacons would be waiting. And when the Klan pulled up, the Deacons would start shooting.

And the effect of all this was it created space for civil rights workers to do the work of desegregating Bogalusa.

Which meant Bob Hicks and the Voter’s League could be bolder in demanding their rights. Because they had these men with guns backing them up. Rickey Hill says they filed lawsuits against the mill, the school system, even the police department.

RICKEY: Somebody was always at the ready to file another suit.

And by that summer they were starting to make a kind of progress they hadn’t before the Deacons. Some national civil rights leaders started coming to town to lead marches. They recognized it was a becoming an important spot in the movement and they knew the Deacons could protect them.

But the larger Civil Rights movement was uncomfortable with the Deacons, they didn’t like it that they were arming themselves and because of that, some of the biggest leaders in the movement avoided and criticized them.

BARBARA: MLK never came to Bogalusa.

He thought the Deacons were a bad idea.

FARMER: We shouldn’t be armed, we shouldn’t be doing this.

But not being armed left them vulnerable to brutal attacks. Like the time that summer when they tried to peacefully integrate a park. The Deacons brought their kids and white people attacked. The police set a dog on Barbara’s little brother.

And in June when the Voter’s League convinced the sheriff’s department to hire two black deputies, they were shot, and one of them was killed. It seemed like every time the black community got a win. The KKK retaliated.

HAROLD: When you look back on it. You wonder why Bogalusa just didn’t explode and everything get torn up and burned down and everything.

That’s Harold Ritchie, a former state rep who grew up in Bogalusa. Things felt close to a breaking point. And then one day in July the town reached it.

It started with a march to City Hall — a march that seemed like any other march, there were a couple hundred activists, mostly black people and a big group white people had come out to protest. They were shouting and threatening the marchers and then one of the white people threw a rock into the march and it hit a Black teenager named Hattie Mae Hill.

HATTIE: It was a solid object, cause the first thing I thought was a policeman hit me with a billy.

She fell down. And a mob of white people surrounded her.

BARBARA: And the whites surrounding the area, which it was many. It was a lot

They started hitting her. Tearing at her clothes. Finally, a couple of Deacons ran over, grabbed her and pushed her into a car. When they turned around two white men came out of the crowd and started hitting them.

The mob was closing in all around them. Trying to get at Hattie Mae.

BARBARA: You know they wouldn’t stop. They were tussling and

HATTIE: And I put my head down and I then I heard three shots.

When Hattie Mae looked up, a white man was laying on the ground.

One of the Deacons, a man named Henry Austin, had shot him.

A black man shot a white man in broad daylight.

BARBARA: All those whites that surrounded the car, they would have killed both of them. All of them. If they didn’t have any protection.

The Deacon, was arrested, taken to jail, and immediately transferred out of Bogalusa. The police were afraid a mob might try to kill him if he stayed in town.

The white man was listed in critical condition that night.

ERIC: How did that ripple through the town?

BARBARA: It was confirmation that they will shoot back.

A public confirmation.

PAT: Coming up after the break, the federal government steps in and surprises Bogalusa and the KKK. And Eric goes to Bogalusa. To the Wal-Mart. To talk to people about race.

[BREAK]

PAT: So before the break, one of the Deacons shot a white man at the march at City Hall. A black man had shot a white man in broad daylight. The Deacon was arrested, taken to jail and immediately transferred out of Bogalusa. The police were afraid a mob might try to kill him if he tried to stay in town. The white man was listed in critical condition that night. And the shooting had a really big impact. And not just in Bogalusa.

For the black community it was a relief. They’d been living in terror for decades with no protection. And the Deacons were standing up for them in a way no one had before. Jet Magazine published a feature about Deacons president Charles Simms titled, “The Negro Feared Most by Whites in Louisiana.”

And that headline wasn’t just hype. This shooting terrified lots of white people. The New York Times ran a story with the headline, “The Deacons, Too, Ride by Night” that described them as vigilantes who were eager to shoot white men, and included a quote from Charles Simms, who said, “If blood is gonna be shed, we’re gonna let it run down Columbia Road. All kinds. We are not going to send Negro blood down Columbia all by itself.” Some white people started talking about the Deacons like they were a black version of the KKK. An idea Civil Rights leader James Farmer thought was absurd

JAMES: How many people have the Deacons lynched?

CROWD: None.

JAMES: How many people have they strung up from trees?

CROWD: None.

JAMES: How many homes have they bombed and how many churches have they

burned?

CROWD: None.

But a lot of white people did view the Deacons as a sort of black KKK and they started to panic. The mayor called the governor, the governor called the vice president and asked him to send in the National Guard. Said, we’ve got black men running around with guns.

And then in mid-July, the federal government stepped in.

ERIC: And surprisingly, they stepped in to defend the black community. They issued a series of injunctions, basically court orders. The first said to the Bogalusa police dept, do your job, protect black people.

BARBARA: You either protect or you are going to be fined and you are going to jail.

Another ordered the Klan to stop attacking black people. No more night rides. No more beatings. No more terrorizing the community. And more importantly it identified Klan members by name.

BARBARA: It was so much at stake for the Klans because they were required to produce a list of every Klan member.

Over 200 names eventually came out, and because secrecy was so important to the Klan, this was a crushing blow.

And none of this would have happened without the Deacons.

This was one of the first times the DOJ had enforced the Civil Rights Act. A law, nobody was really following. And this sent a signal that the federal government was serious about desegregation.

Charlie Cobb, the activist and author says pretty soon,

CHARLIE: You see a steadily diminishing number of armed assaults on black people.

In Bogalusa and across the whole South.

BARBARA: So it began to change.

And finally Martin Luther King called on the Deacons for help. Even though he’d publicly distanced himself from their tactics.

It happened in June of 1966. James Meredith was an activist and the first African-American admitted to the University of Mississippi. He was marching alone from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi. And on the second day of his march he got shot. He was sent to the hospital. But Martin Luther King wanted to continue the march and asked some of the biggest leaders in the Civil Rights movement to join him.

BARBARA: But they said, no way are we gonna walk up and down the highways of Mississippi with no protection. We’re not moving unless the Deacons are here.

King pushed back back, remember he wasn’t exactly a fan of the Deacons, but eventually he agreed.

BARBARA: King was not gonna march those highways by himself. And so the Deacons protected King.

And it seems like this would be the point in the story where we tell you the Deacons expanded across the country opened chapters in New York and Los Angeles, and led to the formation of the Black Panthers. But that’s not actually what happened.

The Deacons went back to Bogalusa after the march. They still had a lot of work to do. Despite the injunctions, the town still hadn’t integrated. And so the Deacons focused on fighting segregation at home, while nationally, the Civil Rights Movement evolved and became the Black Power Movement.

As the 60s turned to the 70s, the town did gradually integrate, and the Deacons faded back into their lives. Bob Hicks and Fletcher Anderson stayed in Bogalusa and kept working at the mill. Reese Perkins couldn’t find work and left. Henry Austin, the Deacon who shot the white man at the protest, was never charged. But a few months after the shooting, he was beaten by the police and eventually forced to leave town

And Barbara she left Bogalusa, too. This had all taken a toll on her.

BARBARA: It’s hard to function when you have the fear that your house is gonna be bombed.

After high school, she moved to New Orleans to go to college. She started a family. Built a whole new life there.

BARBARA: I pushed the whole movement experience out of my life. I just pushed it as far as I could because I had to move on.

But then something happened that forced her right back into it.

BARBARA: After Hurricane Katrina, lost everything, I was forced to come home.

Back in Bogalusa, she started spending a lot of time with her dad. They talked about her childhood, and she started to realize as vivid as those years had been in her mind, there were things she didn’t know.

BARBARA: All the things that I was young and didn’t realize.

He told her stories of the Deacons she didn’t know, because she was a teenager when they happened.

BARBARA: I got all the whys and what-ifs and what-did-you-do and what-did-they-do, that’s what I did.

Then her dad got sick. Then in 2010, he died.

BARBARA: You know I got the answers before he died. When they say passing the torch, you know, to the next generation, yeah I mean, he put it in my hand, and it’s like ok, so I got it so, let me do what I have to do.

This is when Barbara started working on the museum we talked about at the beginning of the story. The museum she believes led someone to try to burn down her house. When I called the police to ask about the arson, the person who took my call didn’t want to talk about it. She asked me why I was bringing this up again. That’s the response I got from a lot of white people in town. I called dozens of them and only one agreed to an interview, Harold Ritchie the state rep from before. But I wanted to hear what white people had to say about the Deacons. So when I got into town, I went to WAL-MART.

Because it’s the kind of town where everybody goes to WAL-MART.

ERIC: Excuse me sir, can I walk with you for a second?

I started out asking people about the Deacons and what was going on in Bogalusa in the 60s but everybody wanted to talk about how much things have changed since then.

MAN: I really don’t have that I have a lot of black friends. And I don’t think of them as

black, you know, just friends.

Over and over I heard the same phrases. Things are better now. We don’t see race.

WOMAN: I am not racist I love people. Ya know, black, white, red, Indians, and I don’t know.

MAN: Lemme tell you something. I served in the military. In the field of battle, everybody bleeds red blood. And all the body parts are the same. So where’s the distinction there? Where’s the racial division there. There is none, you’re dead.

Everybody was trying really hard to say me being black didn’t matter.

CHAD: It don’t matter if you’re black. It don’t matter if you’re white. It don’t matter if you’re brown. You’re a person.

This is Chad.

CHAD: Tell you what. If I cut you, you bleed red. If you cut me I do what. [Bleed red] well it’s technically blue but that’s because of the oxygen. If I skin you, you’re red muscle. If you skin me, I’m red muscle.

Hearing this completely caught me off guard. Chad would rather talk about skinning me than even acknowledge that I’m black, acknowledge my experience, that I live in a world that’s different than his. We had this conversation in July. Just a couple days after the police shot and killed Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, an hour and half away from Bogalusa. And what seemed to really upset Chad, and a lot of the people I talked to, was the Black Lives Matter movement. It came up in every almost conversation, unprompted.

CHAD: Nowadays, and it really gets to me especially, and I don’t want to come off like a racist ‘cause I’m not. I’m not. But to me, they got like Black Lives Matter, to me, that’s just as racist as the KKK.

Just as racist as the KKK. It made me think about the way some people described the Deacons in the 60s like the Deacons wanted to hurt white people. Which is just, not true. And I told Chad, Black Lives Matter isn’t out to get white people. They’re just saying, black people don’t feel safe. I mean, I don’t feel safe.

CHAD: But here’s the problem. If they would shut the hell up, excuse my language, and do what the officer says I guarantee you that 99.9% of the time they’re gonna be alive. They’re gonna be in jail but they’re gonna be alive.  

I can’t believe that after fifty years we’re still getting this response: black people need to shut up. Or they die. That’s not much of a choice. And the Deacons got that. They wanted people to know you don’t have to shut up, or die. And I think Black Lives Matter gets it in the same way.  Obviously their tactics are different, but they’re saying the same thing – you should be able to be a black person and be safe.

I should be able to feel safe, and so should Barbara Hicks.

And she should be able to tell this story without looking over her shoulder.

Barbara took us out to the museum. She’s building it in the house she grew up in, the one where the Deacons formed on that night back in ‘65. Last year she got the house landmarked. And now there’s one of those big brown, metal signs out front.

PAT: Would you read a bit of it since this is for the radio?

BARBARA: Ok, the Hick’s home was the birth and the meeting place for Deacons, foot soldiers, lawyers

But the house itself is kinda falling apart.

BARBARA: All the foundation, the seals, and the joints, the whole thing are rotten.

People have vandalized it broken the windows, stolen the copper pipes.

BARBARA: Sometimes I stand out here and I talk to the young people standing on the corner. Do you now who lived in this house? Do you know what he did? Do you know why you’re going to Bogalusa High School that once was all white? Do you know what people did? People died for you to have your rights and this house represents this. This is where they lived so

Despite all that, and whoever’s trying to set her house on fire, Barbara’s determined to finish the museum. No matter what.

BARBARA: What I wanted my mom to do was to put some kind of barricade around the house so that whenever somebody come on the property, the lights and stuff would come on. But I’m ok. I have a praying mother. And she said it’s gonna be ok. I don’t know why you’re so afraid it’s going to be ok.

PAT: Do you keep a gun in the house?

BARBARA: Didn’t I always keep a gun in the house. I am my father’s daughter, and I want to protect my 87-year-old mama.

This episode of Undone was reported and produced by Eric Eddings and me, Pat Walters, along with Julia DeWitt and Emanuele Berry. Our senior producer is Larissa Anderson. We are edited by Alan Burdick and Caitlin Kenney.

Isabella Kulkarni is our intern.

The show is mixed and scored by Bobby Lord. Additional music by Nate Sandberg of Plied Sound. Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris.

Special thanks to Maude Eddings and Ward Colin.

Undone was conceived in collaboration with our friends at Retro Report, the documentary film series that connects iconic news events of the past to today. You can find them at retro report dot org.

If you want to get in touch, follow us on twitter @undoneshow or e-mail us at undone@ at gimletmedia dot .com.

You can subscribe to Undone on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts, and if you like what you heard, please write a review — it really helps out! We’ll have a new episode next week. See you then.

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