Bloody Bogalusa and the Deacons For Defense and Justice

]Sometimes you have to meet violence with greater violence.

That was the creed espoused by the Deacons for Defense and Justice, a paramilitary group of Black men dedicated to protecting civil rights workers and regular Black citizens during the bloody battles pitched on the city streets and country roads of Jim Crow-era Louisiana.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr denounced the Deacon’s use of what he called “aggressive violence.” The Deacons, for their part, just kept stockpiling weapons and meeting their opponents with great shows of force. When the Klan came after people fighting for equal rights in the late sixties the Deacons had guns and fists waiting for them.

Bloody Bogalusa and the Deacons For Defense

The Deacons eschewed King’s ethos of non-violence.

White supremacists were afoot. Homes were being blown up, cars were being run off the road, and men were being shot dead or lynched. The Deacons were trying to even the playing field, and they were more than capable of using the same tools that the Ku Klux Klan had been using against their brethren for decades.

In their heyday, the Deacons had well-armed chapters in nearly two dozen cities stretched across the Deep South.

The Deacons’ Vice President Earnest “Chilly Willy” Thomas was born in 1935 in Jonesboro, Louisiana just an hour south of the Arkansas border. Here in Jackson Parish, residents could earn a good living as lumberjacks, toiling in the paper mills, or farming small homesteads devoted to cotton or tomatoes.

Beef cattle operations and pork-raising concerns were not unknown.

If you were white there was a good chance your friends and neighbors in Jonesboro were also members of the Ku Klux Klan. White power and the speech associated with it were the lingua franca of north Louisiana in that era.

Bloody Bogalusa and the Deacons For Defense and Justice

It was this atmosphere that Earnest Thomas returned to after mustering out of the Air Force following the Korean War. Thomas set about the life of family man raising five children and earning a living in a succession of jobs including mason, handyman and beer tavern gambler. Mr Earnest was a bit of a hustler, was said to be smooth, and came by his Chilly Willy nickname honestly. If his cool ever started to fade he was not above settling his differences with his fists.

The Congress of Racial Equality had been an activist group for nearly a quarter century before they came to Jonesboro to set up a local chapter in 1964. CORE were determined to fight for local Blacks’ right to vote and they fully believed that it could be made to happen using non-violent means.

Chilly Willy was dubious to say the least and quietly began protecting the rent-house where CORE had set up shop.

On July 30th 1964 the KKK ran wild sending up torches across Jackson Parish and gathering 50 strong in a cavalcade to drive straight through The Quarters, a predominantly Black neighborhood in Jonesboro. A police patrol car led the swarm of Klansmen in their efforts to cow and intimidate the residents.

Bloody Bogalusa and the Deacons For Defense And Justice

If Earnest Thomas had been a coiled-spring for the first month of summer he was now ready to unleash. He and Frederick Kirkpatrick marshaled forces and formed what would become knows as The Deacons For Defense and Justice. The two men recruited other like-minded souls and the force of Deacons grew.

The group took to the streets of Jonesboro to protect their fellow Black citizens from the various Klan factions that had established a century-old stronghold in the region. The Deacons used walkie-talkies and citizen band radios to maintain constant communications. If you were white, and you were in a Black neighborhood you better be prepared to give an accounting of yourself.

Earnest Thomas speaks on the Deacons For Defense

200 miles away in Bogalusa, Bob Hicks, a factory worker, was engaged in the hard job of integrating his home town. He teamed up with A.Z Young and the two men assumed control of the Bogalusa Civic and Voter’s League. They wanted the same basic way of living accorded to the white residents of the city. Fair? Not to the KKK. Once the Klan got wind of Hicks’ plan they ratcheted up their campaign of fear and intimidation.

Working in concert with Sheriff Claxton Knight they got word to Hicks that he and his family were going to be targeted for a bombing. Instead of fleeing in terror Bob Hicks sent word out to the Black community of the threat and they responded by rounding up a posse of armed community members who descended on the Hicks house to protect their friend and leader.

Word filtered through the grapevine to CORE and they reached out to the authorities in Washington that there was trouble brewing in Bogalusa.

Bloody Bogalusa and the Deacons For Defense And Justice

The Federal Bureau of Investigation file on the Deacons was over 600 pages long. They knew they had to act quickly or the battle for Bogalusa was going to be a bloody one.

Armed Black men took up sentry positions at the Hicks home. A Deacons chapter in Bogalusa was quickly established and entrenched.

But the Klan were not going to go quietly. There were 17 Klaverns with over a 1,000 members in Louisiana.

Bloody Bogalusa and the Deacons For Defense And Justice

Once J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, received intelligence on the situation in Bogalusa he immediately launched an investigation of the Deacons. The group was cleared of any wrongdoing, and the investigation would lead to the FBI’s well-known COINTEL-PRO WHITEHATE campaign against the United Klans of America, the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi, and the Original Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Louisiana.

At that time Bogalusa and Washington Parish were said to be “the most violent places on the planet.” The town featured “the largest per capita concentration of Klansmen in the nation.”

But for the time being, the KKK’s campaign of terror and violence continued unabated with beatings of Black men, Black motorists’ cars being ran off the road, and general mayhem being waged on the Black community.

Bloody Bogalusa and the Deacons For Defense And Justice

Cross-burnings were a common form of terrorism.

The United Klans of America got wind of the Black men who had the audacity to protect themselves and their neighborhoods, and planned to join their racist brethren to teach the Deacons a lesson in humility. Bear in mind this was the group thought to be responsible for burning down churches, assaulting Black people on the streets, and using dynamite to blow up CORE-related houses.

The capper? The Klan offered a $1000 reward for information leading to the arrest of “those responsible.”

In response, CORE National Director James Farmer came to Bogalusa to give a rousing speech to 500 Black students at Central High School. The Spartan faithful cheered, and hollered while a hundred-plus local and state police stood guard outside the building.

Dozens of cars loaded with Klan members rolled up on the school only to be turned away by the police officers.

Bloody Bogalusa and the Deacons For Defense And Justice

It was the beginning of a long, violent chapter in the history of ‘Bloody Bogalusa.’ Over the next few months CORE battled in the streets and in the town’s City Hall in an attempt to establish civil rights for the Black citizens of the community.

The white supremacists of the KKK, whose membership was laced with police officers, fought back, administering beatings, firebombing CORE-occupied housing, and fighting with vigor to maintain their control of Bogalusa. 300 state troopers were mustered into the city to move in concert with 30 FBI men as they attempted to reign in the bloodshed. For his part, United Klans of America Imperial Wizard Robert Shelton verbally attacked CORE members, and civil rights workers as “tennis shoe wearing…sex perverts.”

Bogalusa Mayor Jesse Cutrer slowly began to see the writing on the wall. A political animal at heart he took to the lectern to make judicious promises to the Black voters of his city. Bogalusa would allow full integration, Black neighborhoods would see road improvements, Black police officers would be hired…his verbiage would end up being just that: talk.

May 19th, 1965, is one of the darkest days in the history of Louisiana.

Bloody Bogalusa and the Deacons For Defense And Justice

It was common knowledge that Bogalusa Police Chief Claxton Knight was a member of the KKK. When Deacons members Bob Hicks and Sam Barnes, along with a group of Black children, visited whites-only Cassidy Park for a picnic on that May day it came as no surprise that Knight quickly sent a detail of city police to investigate this clear affront to his authority.

A station wagon filled with KKK members entered the park and attempted to run over the would-be picnickers. Claxton Knight’s men stood and watched. A white mob formed and stormed the park with a heavy assortment of weaponry. The Blacks were set upon with clubs, belts and chains.

The sheriff’s men joined in the fray and helped administer a fierce beating. Women and children were not spared. The ferocity of the white mob was vicious, animal-like. Bob Hicks loaded up the wounded and injured members of his party and set out for Charity Hospital in New Orleans.

Bloody Bogalusa and the Deacons For Defense And Justice

They knew the Bogalusa hospital would not tend to them.

The following day 500 whites showed up at the park to defend it against the feared Black picnickers. Times-Picayune photographer Terry Friedman was chased down by a group of white teenagers who pummeled him, broke his $2,000 camera, and threw his equipment in nearby Bogue Lusa Creek. Colleague Tom Frazer ran to nearby police to seek aid.

Mirth-filled, the officers declined to help. Friedman and Frazer were then escorted to the edge of town where a car of Klansmen pursued them towards New Orleans while brandishing pistols.

The KKK had carried the day but all hope was not lost. Four days after the Cassidy Park beat-down, Mayor Cutrer signed a six point desegregation agreement to bring Black voices to City Hall.

Meanwhile Gov. John J. McKeithen was sending 380 of the state’s 584 troopers to Bogalusa to ward off what was feared to be mass bloodshed.

Cassidy Park was just an appetizer compared to what the KKK had in store for the Black citizenry of Bogalusa.

Ernest Ray McElveen being fingerprinted following his arrest

It was just before midnight on June 2nd, 1965. Creed Rogers and Oneal Moore, Washington Parish’s first Black deputies, were heading up Louisiana Route 21 on their way back to Moore’s home for a late night fried catfish supper. Ernest Ray McElveen a 41 year old lab technician at the local papermill, was on nightrider duty for his local KKK chapter. His black pickup truck was festooned with white supremacy insignias, and it is thought that he had two fellow klan members riding with him.

Shots from McElveen’s truck ripped through the deputies’ patrol car. Oneal Moore slumped forward. Killed instantly by a bullet from a high-powered rifle. Creed Rogers took a shotgun blast that blinded him in his right eye. His shoulder was perforated with buckshot. Though badly hurt, Rogers radioed for backup. He and his partner had been on duty for one year and one day.

The officer’s squad car was shot to pieces as Ernest Ray took it on the lam to Mississippi. He didn’t get far. McElveen was pulled over in Tylertown just 40 miles away. A night marshal noted the KKK stickers on the pickup truck that Rogers mentioned in his call for help.

Roman Catholic Archbishop John P Cody of New Orleans referred to the killers as: “men with venom coursing through their veins where warm human blood should flow.”

Washington Parish Deputy Sheriff Oneal Moore

The New Zion Missionary Baptist Church buried Oneal Moore a week later. He had sang in their choir, and was raising his four daughters: Sheronda, Tresslar, Regenia, and Veronica in the church.

Ten days after the attack, Ernest Ray’s buddies raised his $25,000 bail and he was released on bond. The FBI claimed they had sent some 50 agents into Washington Parish to investigate the murder but the case slowly withered and would eventually die.

McElveen returned to work at the paper mill. He was never brought to trial. Exultant, a month after the killing, KKK Grand Titan Saxon Farmer crowed “Look how far we’ve come now,” to a crowd estimated at 10,000 people. Prior to the killing, “it was just me and the man they’re now charging with murder of the Negro deputy sheriff.”

Emboldened, the KKK continued their harassment of local Blacks. On a largely peaceful march on City Hall white supremacists once again attacked the marchers. During the melee, Deacon Henry Austin fired off rounds from his pistol; one bullet tore through local klansmen Alton D. Crowe Jr. State Police rushed in and arrested Austin.

He would never stand trial which was regarded as a milestone in that turbulent era.

President Lyndon Baines Johnson had read enough about ‘Bloody Bogalusa’ and was finally ready to step in. He sent Assistant Attorney General John Doar to Washington Parish to hammer out an accord between CORE and the entrenched political firmament.

Doar went into attack mode and filed four lawsuits against local authorities as well as the Klan. He used the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 as his legal battering ram. It worked.

“Overnight, Washington crushed the white supremacist coup in Bogalusa and forced local authorities to uphold the law. In retrospect, what is remarkable is how little was required to destroy the Klan and force local authorities to protect citizens’ rights and liberties. The Federal government did nothing more than threaten city officials with modest fines and light jail sentences.” Deacons For Defense mainstay Bob Hicks.

But the klansmen embedded in Bogalusa’s police department weren’t going down without a fight. In the fall of 1965 the cops ran wild storming into local businesses and arresting owners as well as patrons. 42 juveniles and 25 adults would be cuffed and taken in on what became known as ‘Bloody Wednesday’

Bogalusa Police Chief Claxton Knight

Police Chief Claxton Knight and his henchman Deputy Vertrees Adams were on the front lines with their truncheons randomly cracking skulls and shouting epithets at the Black folks they were terrorizing.

CORE southern director Richard Haley called it “a night of terror in typical Bogalusa-style.”

None of the parties responsible ever suffered any legal recompense due to their actions.

“The Ku Klux Klan still controls Bogalusa, despite a Federal Court injunction, exposure of its membership and massive anti-Klan efforts by the Justice Department and civil rights groups,” reported New York Times correspondent John Herbers.

Pro-segregation rallies at the time in Bogalusa would end with the crowd singing Dixie in unison. But the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 slowly began to turn the tide in favor of CORE and Black citizenry in general.

The bloody summer of 1965 had drawn to a close. The Deacons For Defense and Justice had successfully drawn federal intervention into Bogalusa and the fact they had to do it with guns and fists did not surprise them in the least. Their triumphs would include the city repealing its segregation laws, the modernization of infrastructure in Black neighborhoods, and allowing Blacks full use of public accommodations.

There would be many more chapters written in the saga of the Deacons before they started to fade away at the close of the sixties but the Bogalusa segment of their history is the richest, the bloodiest, and not surprisingly, the most important.

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sources:
“Race and Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana, 1915-1972” by Adam Fairclough
Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement by Lance Edward Hill
Reconsidering the ‘Long Civil Rights Movement by Eric Arnesen
Massive Resistance: The White Response to the Civil Rights Movement by George Lewis
Militancy, Conflict and the Sustenance of the Hegemony in Bogalusa, Louisiana by Seth Hague

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