Via Workers World News Service
Reprinted from the June 20, 1996
issue of Workers World newspaper
African Americans looked on in rage as flames consumed their church. The fire department stood idly by while the building burned to the ground.
It was the 15th fire to destroy a Black church in the state in just six weeks. While many in the African American community were sure the Ku Klux Klan had ignited the blaze, authorities denied the possibility of arson in this and all the other incidents.
Politicians, including the president, rebuked the Klan while they jockeyed for right-wing support.
The year was 1964. Mississippi.
It was a summer of white-supremacist terror throughout the south. African Americans and anti-racist whites organized voter registration and challenged Jim Crow segregation. They defied mass arrests, billy clubs, bayonets, tear gas, fire hoses, snarling dogs, axe handles, pistol whippings, flaming crosses, floggings, and death.
That summer brought out in an organized form what many individuals in the communities had had to resort to ever since Klan terror began: armed self-defense.
In Bogalusa, La., Black and white civil-rights workers were surrounded by a horde of Klansmen. An African American named Charles Sims saw that the chief of police was merely observing the looming bloodshed. The cop was known to be racist, and believed to be in league with the Klan.
Sims walked over to the police chief and told him: "You better stop `em. Cause if you don't, we're gonna kill them all."
The top cop saw armed African American men staked out in protective formation around the building housing the civil-rights workers. That fact alone delivered Sims' message. There was no Klan violence that night.
Sims later declared, "That night a brand-new Negro was born."
Charles Sims was founder and president of the Deacons for Defense and Justice, formed around 1964 in Jonesboro, La. The armed Black self-defense squads organized after cordons of cops escorted a Klan march through an African American neighborhood.
When the Black community forged armed self-defense squads, the racist reign of terror abated. By 1965, there were 62 chapters spread throughout the South and a chapter coalesced in Chicago.
The Pentagon had trained many of these men in military tactics during the U.S. war against Korea. When these soldiers returned to the U.S., they were ready to do battle to defend their communities against the war on Black America.
With a self-defense squad of just 200, Sims assessed, "I could stop 2,000."
Sims described how state troopers marched into Bogalusa in 1964, armed with guns, cattle prods and horses. Sims informed the head of the troopers that if one African American were shocked with a prod or trampled by a horse, blood would run in the streets.
The troopers pulled out of town.
Ernest Thomas, vice president and national organizer for the Deacons for Defense, explained: "We usually operate down South by riding around with pistols and good rifles in radio cars. We've had a couple of gun battles with the Klan but nobody was seriously hurt. We think we sent some Klansmen to the hospital.
"We teach that you have to meet force with force. The only thing the Klan respects is force. It is also the only thing understood by the others who battle Negroes, such as the John Birch Society, the Minutemen, and the American Nazi Party.
"We Negroes can't continue to let the Klan and similar hate groups trample on us," Thomas concluded.
Deacons for Defense was not the first armed self-defense squad of African Americans. And it wasn't the last.
The Emancipation Proclamation was almost a century old when the Deacons for Defense organized.
That proclamation formally ended slavery in this country. It mandated that the U.S. government-and the entire military-must maintain the freedom of former slaves, and "will do no acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom."
The proclamation also specifically spelled out the right of African Americans to self-defense against violence.
But the Northern industrialists betrayed the revolutionary potential of Black Reconstruction that followed the Civil War. The U.S. government capitulated to the Southern planters and ex-slaveowners by withdrawing its federal troops.
That left the largely unarmed former slaves defenseless. The Southern landowners armed the Klan as a weapon of terror and murder to block redistribution of the land to those who had tilled it for centuries.
Although individuals heroically tried to defend themselves, the Klan got away with murder-until 1957. That year, freedom fighter Rob Williams organized the first African American armed defense squads in Monroe, N.C. They protected the home of a Black doctor, then head of the NAACP, against racists who tried to bomb it.
The Ku Klux Klan was headquartered in Monroe. Yet while these armed defense guards prevailed there, no Black person was flogged or lynched.
In 1961, the state pressed trumped-up charges against Williams, another African American activist, Mae Mallory, and a white anti-racist activist.
Williams, author of the pamphlet "Negroes with Guns," was later forced to flee to Cuba to escape charges resulting from his sitting on a lunch-counter stool "reserved" as white-only. Once the defense guards disbanded, Klan terror revived.
By 1964 Malcolm X electrified African Americans and progressive whites with his call for organized armed self-defense.
Rifle clubs formed from Harlem to Chicago.
That same year, 17 white Mississippi union leaders made labor history when they called on trade unionists to take up arms in defense against Klan atrocities.
Members of a multinational local affiliated with the Woodworkers Union, had supported the new Civil Rights Law and demanded factory management "treat the members of the Negro race exactly the same as the members of the white race."
The unionists announced their call for armed resistance in an ad in the local newspaper after a union leader had been kidnapped and tortured by night riders.
"Our members have been advised to arm themselves against a future occurrence of violence," the local declared.
In 1965, youths from the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee organized a rural voter registration drive in Alabama in Black Belt Lowndes County. The ballot symbol of their independent political party-the Alabama Freedom Party-was a black panther.
When the dirt-poor farmers of all ages came to the meetings, they brought their guns. Many remembered the lessons of the bloody cotton pickers' strike of 1935. One local sharecropper told the students, "You turn the other cheek, and you'll get handed half of what you're sitting on." (Quoted in "Hammer and Hoe," Robin Kelley)
In 1966, the newly formed Black Panther Party won national and international attention when members arrived at the California State Capitol in Sacramento armed with rifles.
The Panther men and women marched into the legislative chambers to protest a gun law "aimed at keeping the Black people disarmed and powerless at the very same time that racist police agencies throughout the country are intensifying the terror, brutality, murder and repression of Black people."
In the period of reaction since the upsurge of the 1960s and early 1970s, the
establishment has tried to equate armed self-defense with violence. But in fact,
the decision of many in the African American community to openly arm themselves
in self-defense was a powerful antidote to the violence of the racists the
capitalist state had permitted for so long.
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