Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

January 11, 2006

MLK and Self-Defense

Filed under: — Different River @ 2:00 pm

The Virginia Citizens Defense League is a pro-gun-rights group in Virginia (obviously). They have no paid staff, just a bunch of volunteers. So, to ask members of the Virginia General Assembly to vote for gun-rights bills, they scheduled a “lobby day” for Monday January 16 — when they expect many members to have the day off from work in observance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. Their announcement of the “lobby day” had this interesting tidbit:

As usual the anti[-gun-rights group]s can’t get it right to save their souls. They also are planning on lobbying that day. In an email message they said that it was a fitting day because MLK was against violence — implying that by opposing their victim disarmament agenda that gun owners support violence.

I would like to point out that MLK had armed Deacons, who of course are [i.e., were] just normal citizens, providing security for him!

Indeed we are lobbying to protect the very right that those Deacons exercised back in the 1960′s.

The Deacons for Defense and Justice were a black self-defense group with a fascinating history. Founded in Jonesboro, LA to combat the violence of the KKK, they went on to provide security for civil-rights groups like the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Southern Christian Leadership Campaign (SCLC — Martin Luther King’s organization).

Larry Pratt writes:

The Deacons first emerged as a visible self-defense force in Jonesboro, LA. From the very beginning the Deacons represented a new force in the civil rights movement — leadership had passed from white northern liberals (and blacks who bought into that liberalism) to southern working class blacks who lived in the very communities where the Deacons were active.

The spring and summer of 1964 was a time of growing anti-segregation demonstrations in Jonesboro. The Klan responded at one point with a menacing parade through the black section of town — led by the chief of police. The Deacons informed the chief that if that happened again, “there would be some killing going on.” The Klan never did that again.

Cross burning ended suddenly the night that a cross was set on fire in front of a clergyman’s house. Shots rang out aimed at the Klan as the torch touched the cross. The Klan departed and never repeated that trick.

Hill found that the Deacons did not take just anybody into their ranks for this rather “high octane” volunteer work. They screened the applicants to make sure they were getting men who could handle the pressure and not go off half cocked.

During a desegregation effort at the Jonesboro High School, the authorities brought up fire trucks and prepared to hose the black students attempting to enter the school. The Deacons pulled up and four men publicly loaded shotguns and then made it plain that the lead was for the firemen if they turned the hoses on. The firemen wisely beat a retreat.

This was a very significant event. This was a self-defense effort in the spirit of the American War for Independence. The government was attempting to exercise illegitimate power (enforcing an unbiblical law which by this time also violated federal law) and it was repulsed by the use of community force — by the militia, if you will.

The Deacons were in the great tradition of American freedom — liberty is not given by tyrants and thugs, it is wrested from their hands by force.

Jonesboro saw one more exercise of defensive force before the Klan was finally convinced that they could not intimidate the black community. When Deacon Elmo Jacobs was driving a carload of white civil rights workers, they were fired upon and took a load of buckshot in the door of Jacobs’ car. Jacobs returned fire and the Klan attack ended immediately — and for good.

In Bogalusa, LA, Hill found that the police made no attempt to stop the attacks and in fact took pains to arrest blacks who had armed themselves in self defense. In other words, gun control was simply a tool of people control and had nothing to do with fighting crime. Had crime control been the concern, plenty of opportunities had come and gone to arrest the Klan.

FBI agent Frank Hicks warned Bogalusa blacks that any self-defense shooting by a black — of a white — would result in an arrest for murder. He did not explain where the FBI had any legal or constitutional authority for such a move, but the Deacons were not interested in a scholarly debate. They simply told Hicks that self defense is a constitutional right. Hicks got the message.

A lethal moment in Bogalusa shocked the Klan into the realization that blacks were no longer chattel punching bags. During a 1965 summer desegregation demonstration, white hecklers turned violent and threw a brick which struck Hattie Mae Hill. The white mob surrounded the car the Deacons were using to attempt an evacuation of the terrified girl.

As the mob threatened to break into the car, Deacon Henry Austin shouted that he had a gun. Then he fired a warning shot from his .38 into the air. The mob kept closing in. Austin then fired almost point blank into the chest of Alton Crowe who was in the front of the mob. While Crowe survived, the fun of beating up on blacks died that afternoon in Bogalusa.

When I discuss the Second Amendment with people, I often have to point out the right to keep and bear arms has nothing to do with duck hunting, and was not even originally enacted for purposes of self-defense against crime. It was enacted because of the belief that an armed populace is a protection against a despotic government; just as the popular militias rose up against the British colonial government in the 1770s, an armed population serves as a protection, and a deterent against despotism nowadays as well.

The inevitable response is that the old purpose is simply not realistic today. How could out government become oppressive when we have a democracy? How could armed citizens resist, when the government has tanks, fighter planes, and nuclear bombs? The Deacons give us the answer: A democratic government can become oppressive against a subset of its citizens if the majority support it, and “the government” might not be the federal government with tanks and nuclear bombs, but a local government with a police force that is on the side of the majority and has no qualms about oppressing that subset.

Could such a thing happen today? Well, 1965 is not that long ago. While violent oppression of Blacks on a large scale does not seem likely now, there are plenty of other groups who with unpopular views, unpopular religions, and unpopular people — and the Constitution is enough to protect their rights only as long as the government officials are sufficiently committed to it. That this is not always a sure thing is underscored by the fact that it took a century to properly implement the 14th and 15th Amendments — and only then at the barrel of the Deacons’ guns.

The Deacons have recently been the subject of two books: The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement by Lance E. Hill, and The Deacons for Defense and Justice: Defenders of the African American Community in Bogalusa, Louisiana During the 1960′s by L. LaSimba M. Gray, Jr., and a TV documentary, which has a review by Amin Sharif (with a picture).

5 Responses to “MLK and Self-Defense”

  1. Ben Says:

    Tyranny may require armed response and the canonical example is a tyrannical government. Entrenched tyrannical private organizations that are not subject to the same restrictions as government but operate with their consent are other example. See this link about the Deacons for an example.

    Those who wish to do away with the keeping and bearing of arms fail to see the causal connection. It is not true that the number of examples of real tyranny and oppression has gone down, thus obviating the need to arms. Just the opposite: the presence of arms holds down the instances of oppressive tyranny.

    With no other recourse, the best an aggrieved party can do is participate in civil disobedience, which only works on those government and organizations that have a concience. How well do you think Ghandi’s hunger strike would have worked on the governments of the USSR or China or Uganda?

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  4. SpankThatDonkey Says:

    Excellent post!!! I have never heard of the “Deacons” per se. I really like Condi Rice’s story
    of her father and neighbors protecting their families… She gets it!!!

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