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Vol. 76/No. 11      March 19, 2012

‘Deacons’ prevented violence
against Black struggle in ’60s
Home of former leader’s
family targeted in arson attack
(feature article)
The family of Robert Hicks, who was a leader of the proletarian Black rights movement that defeated a racist terror campaign and ended Jim Crow segregation in the eastern Louisiana town of Bogalusa, was the target of an arson attack on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Hicks, who died in 2010 at the age of 81, played a leading role in the founding of the Bogalusa chapter of Deacons for Defense, the largest Black armed self-defense organization during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

The Deacons organized desegregation battles in parts of the South and defended working people fighting for Black rights, including during the famous 1966 “March Against Fear” from Memphis, Tenn., to Jackson, Miss.

Hicks’ daughter and widow, Barbara Hicks Collins, 65, and Valeria Hicks, 82, awoke at 3 a.m. Jan. 16 to a loud pounding on the door. When Barbara got to the door her car was in flames.

“After the fire department had put out the fire, the fire marshal came in about 10:00,” Barbara Hicks told the Militant in a Feb. 16 phone interview. “He said he was there to rule out the possibility that this was a ‘hate crime.’

“At about the same time a friend of the family, who is also an ex-Deacon, came to pick my mother up. She was chosen to be the marshal of the Martin Luther King Day parade,” Barbara Hicks continued. “He pointed out that there were scorch marks on the roof. Someone intended to burn the house down. That didn’t work so they burned the car.”

The local police said they would send increased patrols to the area. Barbara Hicks said a month later no progress has been reported to her on the investigation, and she has seen only two patrols.

Deacons for Defense

The roots of the attack lie in a lesser known, but very important aspect of the Black struggle of the 1960s.

Coming out of the 1963 victory of the mass struggle in Birmingham, Ala., the battle to end Jim Crow segregation accelerated throughout the South. In Bogalusa and other towns in Louisiana, the Ku Klux Klan met spreading desegregation campaigns with violent terror.

In Jonesboro, La., the Klan and local police responded to plans by the Congress on Racial Equality for a desegregation campaign by cutting off power to the Black community and driving in a long motorcade distributing leaflets threatening violence against anyone who joined a demonstration for Black rights. In response Black workers, many of them military veterans in Jonesboro, established the first chapter of Deacons for Defense and Justice in 1964.

The group met weekly and organized to guard activists, patrol the Black community, and to protect demonstrations from the Ku Klux Klan and the police.

On Feb. 1, 1965, Bill Yates and Steve Miller, two CORE activists, came to Bogalusa to meet with Hicks and other leaders of a local Black rights organization, the Civic and Voters League.

Hicks, who worked in the box-making plant at the Crown Zellerbach paper mill, agreed to let Miller and Yates stay at his home. That night, Bogalusa Police Chief Claxton Knight and a deputy knocked on the door.

“They said the Klan was going to come to our house if we didn’t turn the two civil rights workers over to them to be escorted out of town. They were young men. And this was not long after the Klan killed three civil rights workers in Mississippi,” said Barbara Hicks. In June of 1964 Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney were arrested in Philadelphia, Miss., while there to register Black voters. They were turned over to the Klan by the police after dark and murdered.

“My mother said ‘No. They’re going to stay here,’” said Barbara Hicks.

They made some phone calls. Soon many men armed with shotguns and rifles filed into the house.

A few weeks later, Hicks arranged for leaders of the Deacons in Jonesboro to come to Bogalusa and help them establish a chapter there. His home became an organizing center.

“My husband could never go out without someone protecting him. They would carry him to work and pick him up at the end of the day. There was always someone in the house,” said Valeria Hicks. “It was the only form of protection we had. At one point they tried to take the guns away from us, but they couldn’t. We had the right to bear arms, we had the right to protect ourselves. But it was so unusual for Black men to stand up for their rights.”

Preventing Klan violence

After a group of Klansmen had badly beaten Yates, Valeria Hicks recounts how she helped prevent further assaults.

“Several white men had surrounded his car and they wouldn’t let him get out. He was across the street from my home, so I took my pistol and brought him on in,” said Mrs. Hicks. “Once he got to my property they wouldn’t dare touch him.” Later that night the Klan returned and fired a shot at the Hicks’ home. Seven armed Deacons inside opened fire on the carload of Klansmen.

“The Deacons will help the civil rights movement win further victories, by reducing the terror which helps prevent Negroes from winning new rights and exercising rights already won on paper,” the June 21, 1965, Militant wrote. “Everyone who is for civil rights and Negro equality should give the Deacons every support and encouragement, and should defend their right to exist and grow, free from government harassment.”

“Our whole world changed when we got in the movement,” said Charles Hicks, Robert Hicks’ son and a labor and civil rights activist and retired librarian, in a Feb. 15 interview with the Militant near his home in Washington, D.C. “We didn’t sleep in beds, we slept on the floor. No pajamas, we slept in our clothes. We began to be a marked family, others didn’t want to associate with us. The Klan was powerful.”

The Bogalusa Deacons and the Civic and Voters League launched a successful boycott of Bogalusa’s segregated businesses and Hicks led almost daily protests over a number of months.

“Black people were loading up in vans and buses and going to Covington and New Orleans to do their shopping,” said Charles Hicks, who was expelled from Southern University in Baton Rouge as part of the Louisiana state government’s pressure to end the boycott. “The town is 30 percent African-American, if 22 percent aren’t shopping there that has an impact. By the time the movement was over, Columbia, the main street, was dead. All the businesses had closed.”

The movement in Bogalusa had a seven-point program and forced the city to agree to its demands by the end of 1965. This included ending discrimination in public and private employment and municipal licensing; equal educational opportunities and desegregated schools; desegregation of public accommodations and facilities; sewers, paved roads, and street lighting in the Black community; enforced housing codes; inclusion of Black leaders in city and parish government, and industrial and development planning boards; removal from city ordinances of discriminatory laws; and hiring Black city policemen.

But it took years of further struggle to make real progress along these lines—a process that Robert Hicks remained at the center of.

The example of the Deacons spread to other areas. Some 17 official chapters were set up in the South and many others followed the example.

“Once our community had the Deacons, well you couldn’t just go in there,” Charles Hicks said. “They knew who went in and out. So the Klan couldn’t go in. So Black men began to form their own self-protection. That began to happen throughout the South.”
Related articles:
‘Civil rights struggle showed it can be done’
Illinois rally protests cop killing of Black youth  
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