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.
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.
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.'"