Pro-gun sentiment is often rooted in recreational hunting, or unlikely self-defense scenarios, or the even more unlikely self-defense against the government itself. But for some there is a much deeper resonance: defense against the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists. The Deacons for Defense in Louisiana were such a group. - gwc
Deacons for Defense
by Amin Sharif
The first time I heard about the Deacons for Defense was early June of 1965. There had been another murder down in the Deep South. This time it wasn't three civil rights workers in Mississippi who had been slain. This time the victim was a Black Deputy Sheriff and the place was Bogalusa, Louisiana. But there was something different going on in Bogalusa. A group of Black men had decided to stand up to the white terror. A group of Black men had decided to take on the Klu Klux Klan. These Black men called themselves the Deacons for Defense and Justice.
The Deacons were as mysterious as they were legendary for their courage. For they did in the Deep South what the Black Panther Party would later attempt in the West. The Deacons -- Black men -- had armed themselves against the terror of white racism. One must remember what these men were up against to understand what they did in Bogalusa. In the Deep South, a Black man could be lynched for not stepping into the gutter as a white man, woman or child passed him in the street.
The Jim Crow of the South held the entire Black population hostage to the whims of any white person. And then there was the Klan or the Nightriders, as some called them, dressed in sheets and gowns always ready to defend "white honor" by murder and terror. For a Black man to raise a hand to a white man under these conditions was an automatic death sentence. For a Black man to point a gun at a white man was an act of insanity. Now Showtime has brought the story of the Deacons for Defense to cable television. Starring Forrest Whitaker and the great Ossie Davis, this production is as true a dramatization as we can expect from a commercial undertaking.
The story of the Deacons is deftly told through the eyes of Marcus Clay played by Whitaker. Marcus Clay is a mill worker at the highly segregated plant that owns the town of Bogalusa. Owing his livelihood to the white folks at the plant, Marcus is no friend to the efforts that are erupting throughout the deep South to end segregation. He has grown up with white violence and wishes to keep it away from his family. But Marcus' dream of living alongside of white violence is shattered when a friend is beaten for placing his name on a list reserved for white men at the plant where he works and when his daughter suffers the same fate during a civil rights march to desegregate the town. The final straw comes when, after attempting to save his daughter from her beating, he find himself taken out and beaten by the local police. Marcus Clay's answer to the violence visited upon friend and family is to form the Deacons for Defense.
The story continues in the expected manner. There are a series of victories and set backs for the Deacons. Houses are burned. White civil rights workers try unsuccessfully to turn the Deacons back towards Martin Luther King's technique of non-violence. Next, there is a dramatic showdown between the Deacons and the Klan. But despite a plot where all the moves of the players are predictable, the Deacons for Defense succeeds in gathering sympathy from its audience. And, if the history of the Deacons gets a little disjointed, not to worry. Showtime has smartly added a small documentary on the Deacons after the movie. Whatever is lost in the movie is more than covered in the documentary called "Defending the Deacons."
Taken together, the movie and the documentary do more justice to the legend of the Deacons than harm. All in all, the Deacons for Defense (with the documentary) is well worth watching.