The World War II Veterans Who Took Aim at the KKK

Science History Image, Alamy
Science History Image, Alamy

It’s unusual for a man to see his name scrawled on a coffin, but Robert Hicks couldn’t say he was surprised. As a black man living in the segregated city of Bogalusa, Louisiana in 1965, Hicks had been subjected to threats of violence on a consistent basis. He was also a vocal supporter of equal rights, and very publicly demanded that black workers at his local mill be granted similar promotion opportunities as their white co-workers. He earned even more hostility by endorsing the grassroots Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organization.

The coffin bearing Hicks's name and the adjacent burning cross were evidence that the Ku Klux Klan was growing increasingly irate. It was going to get worse. Recently, Hicks had invited two white CORE workers to stay at his house while they were in Bogalusa. The Klan was alternating between spectacle and bomb threats directed at his home. The police were no help; they refused to stand against the Klan, even if it meant ignoring the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Despite the lack of law enforcement, Hicks and the CORE employees were still protected. Every night, a small band of armed guards patrolled his property, keeping an eye out for suspicious activity. The squad was acting as an intermediary in the event the Klan decided to make good on their threats. While these were locals protecting their neighbors, they’d soon join a much larger organization, a group that supported the values of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., but didn’t subscribe to his nonviolent philosophy. They would become part of the Deacons for Defense and Justice, who were prepared to use any means necessary to protect their fellow activists.

“We will never go on the offense,” Bogalusa Deacon leader Charles Sims later said. “But if the Klan or anybody else comes in here to hit us, I guarantee they will get hit back.”

 
 

Although racial tensions were pervasive throughout the country in the 1960s, some of the most charged animosity to be found anywhere was in the deep South. The Klan had a strong foothold in Louisiana, so much so that their activity was being normalized in areas like Bogalusa. Klan gatherings were publicized over public radio; half of the cars flew tiny rebel flags. Of the town’s 23,000 residents, 9000 were men and women of color who endured malevolent opposition to their very existence.

Protestors and leaders alike advocated for peaceful demonstrations. Violence, Martin Luther King Jr. advised, would only be met with more violence. The Deacons disagreed.

Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

The Deacons for Defense and Justice traced its history to July 1964 in nearby Jonesboro, Louisiana, when Earnest “Chilly Willy” Thomas and Frederick Kirkpatrick started a defense group to protect CORE workers and unarmed protestors from Klan violence. (The name may have come from the deacons of church, who were typically charged with taking care of business.) The group was made up primarily of World War II and Korean War veterans who had grown tired of seeing black Americans physically abused, threatened, and killed for asserting their civil rights. War had erased any apprehension over taking up firearms or meeting force with force.

The movement migrated to Bogalusa when the Deacons first heard that Hicks was being targeted. Following the bomb threats, they sat down and talked with Hicks, and convinced him that having a local chapter would be of benefit to an area so heavily oppressed by Klan influence. Hicks co-founded the chapter along with a Bogalusa local named Charles Sims.

While all of the men received publicity for their efforts, it was Sims who captivated the media. Described as “grizzled” and with the sullen attitude of someone resigned to dispensing violence when necessary, Sims became something of a reluctant spokesperson for the Deacons. Jet magazine called him the man “most feared by whites in Louisiana.” Asked if he’d ever been arrested for battery, Sims estimated he had—about 20 times. “Battery with what?” reporters asked. Sims just held up his fists.

 
 

Sims had little patience for King’s pacifism. “Martin Luther King and me have never seen eye to eye,” he told the Associated Press in July 1965. “He has never been to Bogalusa. If we didn’t have the Deacons here there is no telling how many killings there would have been.”

Indeed, King had never visited Bogalusa. He vowed never to appear where there was a concentration of Deacons because he disagreed with their methodology. To Sims’s thinking, however, there was no choice but to take up arms. The Klan harassed protestors, threw logs in front of motorcades, and shot through the windows of the homes of minorities, all of it largely undisturbed by police intervention.

William Lovelace, Express/Getty Images

What the Klan didn’t account for was the willingness of the Deacons to escalate the conflict. During one public gathering, a white man harassing black attendees was shot three times in the chest by a Deacon carrying a pistol; it was reportedly the first time lethal force had been used by black civil rights supporters in the modern era. (The man survived.) At night, when black residents might be subject to harassment and assault, Deacons toting weapons acted like an impromptu neighborhood watch. Rather than risk getting into a gunfight, the Klan scattered. The window shootings ceased. Despite having only 15 or so members in Bogalusa, the Deacons carried themselves like a small army.

Because they couldn't cover the entire town with numbers, Sims and his fellow Deacons often relied on intercepting police or Klan calls to pinpoint trouble. When a black physician was having problems driving into town, Sims and his men piled into a car and met him at a gas station. Approaching three white men who were following the doctor, Sims addressed the one nearest to him: "Partner, if you want to keep living you better go back, because if you come any closer to this car, I'm going to kill all three of you." The doctor proceeded down the road without incident.

“If you were black, you couldn’t walk the streets,” Jackie Hicks, Robert’s wife, told a reporter in 2014. “If a group of whites saw you, they would jump on you. But if the Deacons were around, they wouldn’t mess with you.”

Rather than become a war zone, Bogalusa’s tensions simmered just below the surface, with one side waiting for the other to make a move.

 
 

The presence of the Deacons in Bogalusa did not go unnoticed by the FBI. Alarmed by the idea of a full-blown race war being played out with two armed parties, the Bureau kept a close watch on Sims, Hicks, and the other Deacons. Occasionally, some would go on the offensive, like the time a number of Deacons fired into the windows of the home of Herrod Morris, a reverend who had criticized the black community. Fearing the conflict would become combustible, the federal government invoked Reconstruction-era laws to force police to protect civil rights workers. It was the first time such laws had been referenced in modern times. In raising the stakes, the Deacons had forced lawmakers to back the Civil Rights Act with substantial action.

With law enforcement slowly embracing responsibility and more militant groups like the Black Panthers taking up headlines, the Deacons—which had grown to around two dozen chapters in the South, including Mississippi and Alabama—were largely dissolved by 1968 and rarely mentioned in historical accounts thereafter. Some historians have theorized it was because their eye-for-an-eye approach didn’t fit the nonviolent narrative of the civil rights movement. Yet their legacy was largely one of deterrence. Adversaries didn’t act on violent impulses, for fear of retaliation.

Hicks went on to fight racial injustice in other ways: He sued the paper mill where he worked for bypassing black employees, and became a supervisor there in 1971. He also sued the police for harassing civil rights protestors, and got an injunction enforced by the U.S. Justice Department. The Hicks home, which at one time had been guarded by the community, now sits recognized on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 2013, Robert's son, Charles Hicks, told The Washington Post that both his father and the Deacons were to be commended. "Growing up, we had a lot of admiration for the Deacons," he said. "Their philosophy was, 'It’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees.'"

14 Retro Gifts for Millennials

Ravi Palwe, Unsplash
Ravi Palwe, Unsplash

Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996, which means the pop culture they grew up with is officially retro. No matter what generation you belong to, consider these gifts when shopping for the Millennials in your life this holiday season.

1. Reptar Funko Pop!; $29

Amazon

This vinyl Reptar figurine from Funko is as cool as anything you’d find in the rugrats’ toy box. The monster dinosaur has been redesigned in classic Pop! style, making it a perfect desk or shelf accessory for the grown-up Nickelodeon fan. It also glows in the dark, which should appeal to anyone’s inner child.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Dragon Ball Z Slippers; $20

Hot Topic

You don’t need to change out of your pajamas to feel like a Super Saiyan. These slippers are emblazoned with the same kanji Goku wears on his gi in Dragon Ball Z: one for training under King Kai and one for training with Master Roshi. And with a soft sherpa lining, the footwear feels as good as it looks.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. The Pokémon Cookbook; $15

Hop Topic

What do you eat after a long day of training and catching Pokémon? Any dish in The Pokémon Cookbook is a great option. This book features more than 35 recipes inspired by creatures from the Pokémon franchise, including Poké Ball sushi rolls and mashed Meowth potatoes.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. Lisa Frank Activity Book; $5

Urban Outfitters

Millennials will never be too old for Lisa Frank, especially when the artist’s playful designs come in a relaxing activity book. Watercolor brings the rainbow characters in this collection to life. Just gather some painting supplies and put on a podcast for a relaxing, nostalgia-fueled afternoon.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

5. Shoebox Tape Recorder with USB; $28

Amazon

The days of recording mix tapes don’t have to be over. This device looks and functions just like tape recorders from the pre-smartphone era. And with a USB port as well as a line-in jack and built-in mic, users can easily import their digital music collection onto retro cassette tapes.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Days of the Week Scrunchie Set; $12

Urban Outfitters

Millennials can be upset that a trend from their youth is old enough to be cool again, or they can embrace it. This scrunchie set is for anyone happy to see the return of the hair accessory. The soft knit ponytail holders come in a set of five—one for each day of the school (or work) week.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

7. D&D Graphic T-shirt; $38-$48

80s Tees

The perfect gift for the Dungeon Master in your life, this graphic tee is modeled after the cover of the classic Dungeons & Dragons rule book. It’s available in sizes small through 3XL.

Buy it: 80s Tees

8. Chuck E. Cheese T-shirt; $36-$58

80s Tees

Few Millennials survived childhood without experiencing at least one birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. This retro T-shirt sports the brand’s original name: Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre. It may be the next-best gift for a Chuck E. Cheese fan behind a decommissioned animatronic.

Buy it: 80s Tees

9. The Nightmare Before Christmas Picnic Blanket Bag; $40

Shop Disney

Fans of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas will recognize the iconic scene on the front of this messenger bag. Unfold it and the bag becomes a blanket fit for a moonlit picnic among the pumpkins. The bottom side is waterproof and the top layer is made of soft fleece.

Buy it: Shop Disney

10. Toy Story Alien Socks; $15

Shop Disney

You don’t need to be skilled at the claw machine to take home a pair of these socks. Decorated with the aliens from Toy Story, they’re made from soft-knit fabric and are big enough to fit adult feet.

Buy it: Shop Disney

11. Goosebumps Board Game; $24

Amazon

Fans that read every book in R.L. Stine’s series growing up can now play the Goosebumps board game. In this game, based on the Goosebumps movie, players take on the role of their favorite monster from the series and race to the typewriter at the end of the trail of manuscripts.

Buy it: Amazon

12. Tamagotchi Mini; $19

Amazon

If you know someone who killed their Tamagotchi in the '90s, give them another chance to show off their digital pet-care skills. This Tamagotchi is a smaller, simplified version of the original game. It doubles as a keychain, so owners have no excuse to forget to feed their pet.

Buy it: Amazon

13. SNES Classic; $275

Amazon

The SNES Classic is much easier to find now than when it first came out, and it's still just as entertaining for retro video game fans. This mini console comes preloaded with 21 Nintendo games, including Super Mario Kart and Street Fighter II.

Buy it: Amazon

14. Planters Cheez Balls; $24

Amazon

Planters revived its Cheez Balls in 2018 after pulling them from shelves nearly a decade earlier. To Millennials unaware of that fact, this gift could be their dream come true. The throwback snack even comes in the classic canister fans remember.

Buy it: Amazon

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How Ouija Boards Went From Spiritualist Tool to Children's Toy

iStock.com/M00Nkey
iStock.com/M00Nkey

With its inviting pastel packaging, the pink Ouija board for girls fit right in on toy shelves when it was released in 2008. The moon and sun symbols, normally depicted in a Victorian-era style, had been redesigned as generic cartoons. It came with a purse-like carrying case and cards with questions like Will I be a famous actor someday? and Who will call/text me next? From the opposite end of the game aisle, the new board could have been mistaken for Pretty Pretty Princess or Mystery Date—but it didn't fail to catch the attention of some sharp-eyed parents.

News of the product began spreading around the internet soon after its debut, with religious blogs accusing the toy's manufacturer, Hasbro, of marketing the occult to kids. There was a movement to boycott Toys "R" Us and Hasbro in 2010 because of it. "Hasbro is treating it as if it's just a game," Christian activist Stephen Phelan told Fox News. "It's not Monopoly."

But despite the sudden public reaction, Ouija boards had in fact been marketed as a game for a century by the time "Ouija for girls" hit toy stores.

Parlor Trick to Party Game

Tim Deering, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0. Cropped

Ouija boards, or "talking boards," are a fairly recent invention. They were an outgrowth of Spiritualism, a 19th century religious movement that believed in communicating with the dead. Among other types of early technology they used to try and reach the deceased, Spiritualists would sometimes paint the alphabet onto a table and use a rolling pointer, or planchette, to spell out otherworldly messages letter by letter. Soon other elements, like a Yes and No in the top corners, the word GOODBYE at the bottom, and the numbers 0 through 9 beneath the alphabet, became standard in the design. The components were simple enough that anyone with curiosity in the supernatural could assemble their own board at home.

In 1890, three entrepreneurs named Elijah Bond, Charles Kennard, and William H.A. Maupin decided to monetize the parlor game. They secured the patent for the Ouija board (Kennard claimed the term ouija was an ancient Egyptian word for good luck) and started selling the wooden games for $1.50 a pop. Even though the board sold well, the original team dissolved after several years due to internal conflicts, and an employee of their novelty company, William Fuld, took over the rights. He was instrumental in transforming Ouija into an iconic toy brand—by the time of his passing in 1927, Fuld held over 21 Ouija-related patents and copyrights.

Fuld—and after his death, the Fuld family company—weren't afraid to play up the sense of mystery surrounding the boards in order to sell games. A 1920 advertisement in The Metropolitan magazine featured promises of a talking board that "Prophesies—Forewarns—and Prefigures, Your Destiny" beneath an eerie illustration of a disembodied face floating behind a player's shoulder—an image that would become part of the board's design. In 1938, the Fuld company sent out a mailer that read: "Call it a game if you like—laugh at the weird, uncanny messages it brings you if you dare, but you'll have to admit that mystifying Oracle Ouija gives you the most intensely interesting, unexplainable entertainment you've ever experienced."

Fascination with Spiritualism was still strong in early 20th century America, and Ouija board sales reflected that, with Fuld personally making $1 million from the game before he died in 1927. Ouija boards allowed members of the general public to dabble in mysticism without fully committing to hiring a medium. Guiding the planchette also provided a way for courting couples to touch and flirt discreetly, as Norman Rockwell's May 1920 cover for The Saturday Evening Post showed.

Investing in the New Age Movement

Jonas Forth, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0. Cropped

Ouija continued to be a money-maker for the Fuld family until it eventually caught the attention of one of America's largest toy companies. Parker Brothers bought the manufacturing rights to the Ouija board in 1966, and instead of giving it a family friendly-makeover in keeping with the other games in their stable, the board game company decided to maintain the darker marketing style that had worked for the product in the past. Boxes displayed a mysterious shrouded figure waving a hand as if casting a spell. The packaging advertised that games were made in Salem, Massachusetts—the town where Parker Brothers was founded as well as the site of America's most infamous witch trials.

The Ouija brand turned out to be a savvy purchase for Parker Brothers. The New Age movement was starting to form in the mid- to late-1960s, and the public was more interested in Spiritualism and the occult than it had been since the beginning of the century. In 1967, the year after Parker Brothers bought Ouija, the game outsold Monopoly.

Even the board's frightening appearance in 1973's The Exorcist and the Satanic Panic of the 1980s weren't enough to keep people from buying the game. By the 1980s and '90s, it had gone from a Spiritualist activity for adults to a game that kids and teenagers broke out at get-togethers. "Back then Ouija boards were still a staple of sleepover parties," Mitch Horowitz, author of the book Occult America, tells Mental Floss. "Kids gathered in basements to smoke pot and listen to Led Zeppelin IV and play with the Ouija board."

Advertisements from this period targeted kids directly. One early '90s commercial shows a group of boys asking the board questions like "Will I ever be tall enough to slam dunk?" and "Will my parents let me go to the concert?" while zany music plays in the background.

Slumber Party Staple

Hasbro acquired the rights to the game when it absorbed Parker Brothers in 1991, and Ouija board commercials aimed at children have since disappeared from airwaves. Today, even though the Spiritualist movement that spawned the board has faded from public consciousness, the game's connection to the era is still part of its appeal—even if users aren't fully aware of it.

"It really is the one and only object from the age of Spiritualism that's still part of American life," Horowitz says. "Ask most people 'Have you attended a seance?' and you'll get looked at funny, but if you ask them 'Have played with the Ouija board?' and most people will say, 'Oh yes, I had a scary experience,' or 'My kid had a scary experience with something of that nature.' It's not too far off from asking someone if they've been to a seance—it just happens to be product-based."

The game has also proven harder to modernize than other classic board games; it's a tactile experience, Horowitz points out, which makes it tricky to digitize. But that doesn't mean Hasbro hasn't tried to bring the game into the 21st century: Past attempts included a Ouija board that glowed in the dark and a pink board that fit every stereotype about what young girls like—the same one that drew ire from religious groups.

But none of these reinventions have successfully replaced the classic Ouija board most people are familiar with. If you look up Ouija on Hasbro's website today, you'll find a game that resembles the same weathered, wooden tables mediums used to create their first talking boards in the 19th century—a design that may be enough to make users forget they're playing with a copyrighted board game meant for kids, and not an occult artifact.

This story has been updated for 2020.