April 24, 2007

Deacons for Defense and Justice

The Electronic Village shares a quote in the top-left hand corner of our blog each day. A recent quote note, "Until the lion has his or her own storyteller, the hunter will always have the best part of the story." As such, I admire when little-known aspects of the African American experience are shared in public venues.

It turns out that an little-known part of our history as a nation has been dramatized and is available on DVD. I watched it for the first time last week. The show stars Academy Award winner Forrest Whitaker and the great Ossie Davis and is directed by Bill Duke. 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.

Deacons for Defense and Justice, a black organization established to protect civil rights workers against the Ku Klux Klan, was a group of African American men who were mostly veterans of World War II and the Korean War. Charles Sims was the DDJ founder (The character played in the movie by Whitaker is a composite of three different men, including Sims). Anyhow, Sims formed the DDJ after local police escorted a Klan march through a Black neighborhood in Jonesboro, Louisiana. Based in local churches, the DDJ set up armed patrol car systems in cities such as Bogalusa and Jonesboro, Louisiana on July 10, 1964. The DDJ expanded to over 50 chapters throughout the South and a chapter in Chicago.

Their goal was to combat Ku Klux Klan violence against Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) volunteers who were participating in voter registration activities.

Disciplined and secretive, the Deacons generally limited their activities to patrolling black neighborhoods and protecting mass meetings, CORE headquarters, and civil rights workers who were entering and leaving town. In addition, the Deacons accompanied marchers from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi, in the summer of 1966, during which the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader Stokley Carmichael popularized the phrase Black Power.

J. Edgar Hoover worried enough about the DDJ to have over 1600 pages on the organization.

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 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.

Ironically, as nonviolent civil rights activities were eclipsed in the later 1960s by the Black Power Movement, with its militant rhetoric and insinuations of racial violence, the Deacons' presence declined. By 1968 the Deacons for Defense and Justice had all but disappeared.

Villagers, you can read more about this group in book called The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement by Lance Hill.


Lori said...

Thanks for mentioning this. I saw the made for tv movie, but didn't realize it had come out on dvd. I'll be sure add a copy to my movie collection.

Also, I think it's a shame that Black men like these are absent from so many history books. Overall, I think there exists a stereotypical perception about Black southerners and what they did and didn't do during the Civil Rights Movement and in the face of segregation, Jim Crow and the like.

Not all Black men ran scared or moved North. Some of them stayed, owned land, ran businesses as well as stood up to White Folks and lived to tell about it--my own 80 some year old Mississippi-born grandfather and his brothers among them.

I think it's a disgrace that these men have been relegated to being portrayed by the media and in history texts as frightened, passive, head-scratching types.

Danielle said...

I haven't seen this movie but am adding it to my Netflix's queue. You know for far too long black American experience has been marginalized. Once Americans embrace all aspects of our nation's heritage there can be unification. This country was formed by both white, brown and black hands collectively. The more we learn of the brave defenders of freedom the better equipped we are to take up the fight.

Keep on keeping on.

Anonymous said...

Hey Villager.

I saw that movie when it first came out and it really opened my eyes to a section of the civil rights history that I had never heard of. All we ever hear about is the non-violent aspect, but there were obviously other approaches in motion. Not to dismiss the non-violent idea, but I have to admit I was glad to see a story about brothers who refused to let themselves just sit down and take it. I was also glad to see it made J. Edgar Hoover nervous. Anything that made Hoover nervous had to have been a good thing.

Vanessa said...

Thanks for this post. I recall seeing this movie when it was broadcast on cable. I was shocked to learn that it was a true story.

I haven't seen it for quite some time now. In my opinion, it's one of Forrest Whittaker's best performances.

Anonymous said...

I have never even heard of this. Just goes to show how selective history can be, I guess. But... amazon.ca has it in stock so I will get to see it shortly. Thanks for the post, Villager - Anna

Unknown said...

lori - I hope you add it to your collection. Your grandfather and great-uncles seem like powerful people. We have too many untold stories.

danielle - I saw it via Netflix! I agree with you that we must continue to seek common ground as we deal with race relations issues in this country.

keith - Although I have been blessed to live a life devoid of violence ... I find that I am probably more suited for Malcolm's approach than to Martin's approach. In the long run, they both work together better than either would do alone.

Vanessa - I've never been a big Forrest Whittaker fan. I enjoyed this movie very much. I understand that his KING OF SCOTLAND role was also good.

Anna - Thanx for the visit. I hope you enjoy the movie!

Gunfighter said...

A good post!

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Unknown said...

Box 1715 & Danielle - I'm glad that you had a chance to see the film. I find myself seeing many new movies now that I'm a Netflix customer. Anyhow, please return the favor ... let me know if you have any recommendations to share with me as well.

peace, Villager