JULY 10, 1964

Charles Sims, head of the militant African American civil rights organization, the Deacons for Defense and Justice, displays replicas of Ku Klux Klan robes. African Americans in Bogalusa, a racial hot spot in the 1960s, had planned to wear the robes in defiance of the Klan during a march but the maneuver was called off at the last minute. Credit: Bettman Collection via Getty Images

A group of Black men in Jonesboro, Louisiana, led by Earnest “Chilly Willy” Thomas and Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick, founded The Deacons for Defense and Justice to protect civil rights activists. 

The deacons, most of them veterans of the Korean War, World War II or both, began providing protection after the Congress of Racial Equality’s freedom house became a target of the Ku Klux Klan. They went on to provide security for civil rights leaders and for events such as the 1966 March Against Fear in Mississippi

Their presence helped deter the KKK’s intimidation and violence against African Americans. Future Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael drew inspiration from the deacons. 

“Here is a group which realized that the ‘law’ and law enforcement agencies would not protect people, so they had to do it themselves,” he said. “The deacons and all other Blacks who resort to self-defense represent a simple answer to a simple question: What man would not defend his family and home from attack?” 

By 1968, the deacons had begun to fade from the scene, overshadowed by groups like the Black Panthers. A 2003 TV movie, starring Forest Whitaker and Ossie Davis, depicted the story of the deacons and others in the civil rights movement.

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption,...