Teach! That’s what Deacons for Defense does best. It teaches hidden history from the civil rights movement. It shows the stand-tall results of facing paralyzing fear. It lays out the political types who are on stage in every struggle for social change.
In these times of antiwar mobilizing and organizing to save civil liberties, Showtime’s made-for-cable movie, based on a true profile in courage, is sharply relevant.
The Scene. It is the mid-1960s in Bogalusa, Louisiana, 60 miles northeast of New Orleans, and the Ku Klux Klan is up in arms. Literally.
After years of struggle undeterred by billy clubs, fists, guns and white-supremacist mobs, the civil rights movement had finally wrung the 1964 federal Civil Rights Act out of Congress. But there is no evidence of this victory in Bogalusa. And city politicians, businessmen and their gun-toting KKK cronies mean to keep it that way.
Relative to the population, the KKK chapter in Bogalusa is the largest in the country. Bogalusa is a company town, run by the Seattle-based Crown Zellerbach Company. Both paper mill and town are fully (and illegally) segregated.
Out-of-state civil rights organizers are showing up, and Black young people are eager to bring some of Freedom Summer to town. Pickets and boycotts begin to pepper Bogalusa.
This is the real backdrop for the movie, in which the protagonist, a composite character called Marcus, is movingly portrayed by Forest Whitaker. Terrified of Klan violence, Marcus forbids his daughter to participate in the protests.
Action! Angry at weeks of disruptive protests and boycotts, city fathers decide to deal with them the “old-fashioned way.” As their rioting cops descend on the demonstrators, Marcus dashes in and puts a chokehold on one of the cops taking a swing at his teenage daughter. He is arrested and severely beaten.
“See what they did? They beat me like a dog. They gonna do the same to our kids, and their kids. I got to do something.”
Marcus and his coworkers hold a meeting. (In life, this meeting occurred not in a church, as the movie places it, but at the Black labor hall.) It does not take long for these disciplined union men and war veterans to form an organization of self-defense that is willing and able to meet force with force — the Deacons for Defense and Justice.
Ossie Davis, playing a well-meaning liberal minister to the hilt, urges the men to disavow any kind of violence. He offers to meet with the mayor and get that worthy to “guarantee the safety of the Negro people,” in return for which he will see to it that no more rallies take place in front of City Hall.
No way, the Deacons say. They elect officers and begin buying citizen band radios for their roving car patrols. With the help of longshoremen in New Orleans, they also lay in guns and ammunition.
Pacifism vs. self-defense.A common KKK terror tactic was to send carloads of men speeding through the Black community and firing guns into homes. After one of these nightriding attacks, the Deacons return fire. The Klan speeds away, and that is the end of nightriding in Bogalusa. Says the minister to Marcus later, “Fear of the Klan made me less than a man. You freed me, son.”
Armed Deacons regularly guard the local civil rights office. But two northern white staffers are committed pacifists. “This movement is nonviolent — that is the essence of the movement,” pleads one of them, played by Jonathan Silverman. “Don’t tell me about the essence of your summer vacation,” responds Marcus. “Alive is better. “
Protest against segregation and discrimination at the mill and Klan violence mounts. Although the pacifist civil rights organizations refuse to come to Bogalusa, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) sticks with them, and their fight is getting attention from the national press. The Seattle bosses of the paper company order desegregation at the mill, and a vengeful Klan is arming.
But what really scares the local politicians and the federal Department of Justice is that Blacks are arming also. “Coloreds with pistols and hand grenades,” lament the city officials fearfully. “Two armies gathering,” worries the Justice Department. “They’re spreadin’ communism and niggerism,” exhorts the Grand Pooh-Bah of the KKK.
Protected by the Deacons, the Black community presses on.
Finally, the Justice Department becomes concerned that the Deacons phenomenon will spread, and pressures state and local authorities to order their police to stop helping the Klan.
The real-life Deacons did, in fact, go on to organize dozens of chapters throughout the South. In his book Lay Bare the Heart, civil rights leader James Farmer, who marched in Bogalusa, asks, “Who or what could control the haters? The governor? The president? The spirit of Gandhi? Or the barrel of a gun!”