No to Gun Control: Racist Ruling-Class Ploy to Disarm the Population
Who Controls the Guns?
Black Panther Party demonstrating at California State House in defense of their right to carry arms, 2 May 1967.
In the wake of the horrific Newtown school shooting and a shooting spree at a shopping center in Clackamas, Oregon this past December, President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party have joined with Republicans like New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and the liberal media in launching a drive to tighten gun control laws. The main opposition comes from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and right-wing Republicans, as well as some conservative Midwestern Democrats. But while there is a division among the capitalist rulers over gun laws, they all agree on intensified police repression across the board – as well as U.S. imperialist war in Afghanistan and murderous drone strikes in half a dozen countries.
So-called “progressives” want to further strengthen the repressive apparatus by disarming the population. All historical evidence shows that “gun control” will not reduce violent crime or prevent rampages by deranged individuals. It will, however, embolden racist police rampages in impoverished African American, Latino, Asian and immigrant areas. The police are there to “serve and protect” the interests of the capitalist rulers and to keep their victims down. That’s why they want a monopoly on violence. Gun control has always targeted exploited populations in order to undercut their ability to resist. In the United States, from colonial times to today, it is an incontrovertible fact that gun control kills blacks.
The Internationalist Group says no to gun control and other schemes to keep the working class and the oppressed disarmed in the face of a rapacious ruling class and its murderous, racist state. Luckily, the chances of actually outlawing guns for civilians in the U.S., where there are an estimated 300 million non-military firearms for a population of 325 million people, are virtually nil. Nevertheless, the measures presently being prepared in Congress such as intrusive “background checks” are aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of those the bourgeoisie deems to be its enemies, and to put a leash on the rest – and thus should be opposed by any defender of democratic rights.
With the intense media focus on the shooting of 20 children and six adult staff at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, people have rightly begun to question what kind of a society could cause such shocking and brutal violence. But the grief and fear are being used by the White House for a dual campaign of limiting civilian access to guns and increasing the number of police inside of schools. This blatant fear-mongering in order to turn the schools into jails is disgusting, and dangerous. Rather than aiding school safety, it leads to unwarranted and often traumatic arrests of children, including handcuffing and jailing seven-year-olds, as well as imprisoning high school youths for minor infractions. We demand cops out of the schools.
For liberals, violence is at the center of the issue, and discussion over gun control becomes a simple equation of more guns equals more violence. But this ignores the fundamental truth that there are two classes in society, the capitalist rulers who assert their “right” to kill whomever they want by gun, bomb or remote control drone, and have a vast apparatus of private security guards, police, military and various other armed government agencies to do it; and the working people who may spend years in prison for shoplifting a stick of chewing gum, or in olden times for the “crime” of picking up dead wood. The exploiters don’t want the exploited to have arms.
Racism and Gun Control
In the United States, racism is behind gun control laws going back to slavery. Not only were slaves generally prohibited from having weapons, so increasingly were free blacks as fear of slave revolts grew. Following Nat Turner’s Rebellion (1831), Virginia made it illegal for free blacks “to keep or carry any firelock of any kind, any military weapon, or any powder or lead.” Tennessee changed its constitutional clause from “freemen…have a right to keep and to bear arms” to “free white men.” The Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision (1857), holding that black people had “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” laid out the connection between gun control and democratic rights. Granting blacks citizenship:
“would give them the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects upon which its [the U.S.’] own citizens might speak; to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went.”
–from Clayton Cramer, “The Racist Roots of Gun Control,” Kansas Journal of Law and Public Policy (Winter 1995)
Following the Civil War, the “Black Codes” enacted in Southern states to ensure a labor supply for the plantations also included bans on blacks carrying knives or firearms. When those laws were repealed under Reconstruction, former Confederate soldiers formed vigilante terror squads such as the Ku Klux Klan to seize guns from blacks, intimidate them from voting and drive them off their land. Later, under Jim Crow segregation, racist laws were couched in racially neutral terms, but as a state supreme court justice said of Florida’s 1891 ban on cheap handguns, it “was passed for the purpose of disarming the negro laborers,” “was never intended to be applied to the white population and in practice has never been so applied.”
Following World War II and throughout the 1950s and ’60s, armed self-defense in black neighborhoods in the U.S. South was the only thing between black families and their would-be murderers. Beginning in 1946 in Monroe, North Carolina, ex-Marine Robert F. Williams and other African American veterans gathered 40 black men with rifles who backed off an armed Klan motorcade which threatened the funeral of a local black sharecropper who had been executed for killing his white landlord (from Timothy B. Tyson, Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power [University of North Carolina Press, 1999]).
Later, Williams, by then head of the Monroe NAACP, organized a black armed guard, with a charter from the NRA, that in a 1957 campaign to integrate a public swimming pool held off a KKK motorcade with sandbag fortifications and gunfire. The following year he gained fame in a nationwide tour publicizing the infamous Monroe “kissing case” (of a nine-year-old black boy sentenced to 14 years in jail because a seven-year-old white playmate kissed him on the cheek). And in 1961, Williams rescued a white couple driving through the black community as a racist mob was beating up student Freedom Riders in downtown Monroe (Robert F. Williams, Negroes with Guns ). For this he was charged with kidnapping and forced to flee the country.
But black self-defense continued. In Bogalusa, Louisiana, the Deacons for Defense and Justice were formed in 1965 to guard civil rights marches and patrol black neighborhoods against KKK and other racist vigilantes during a campaign to abolish all segregation laws, open up local restaurants and integrate the local high school (see “Bogalusa 1965: Deacons for Defense,” on p. 21 of this issue). Next door in Alabama, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) formed the Lowndes County Freedom Organization to run candidates for local office under the symbol of the black panther. When they were met with evictions and death threats, SNCC told its supporters to arm themselves in self-defense.
And in Oakland, California the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was formed, inspired by Williams, which carried out armed neighborhood patrols on the lookout for police violence. When a state assemblyman introduced a bill to prohibit publicly carrying guns, Bobby Seale led an armed Panther detachment into the state house where he read a statement declaring the bill an attempt “at keeping the black people disarmed and powerless at the very same time that racist police agencies throughout the country are intensifying the terror and repression of black people.” The gun control bill was passed, signed into law by Governor Ronald Reagan; FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover declared the BPP “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” and over the next few years 38 Panthers were killed by the police and hundreds arrested.
Meanwhile, as civil rights laws were passed to formally abolish Jim Crow segregation in the South, the Northern black ghettos exploded in anger over poverty and rampant police brutality. As liberal journalist Robert Sherrill wrote, a panicked Congress passed the Gun Control Act of 1968 to “shut off weapons access to blacks … since they probably associated cheap guns with ghetto blacks” (The Saturday Night Special ). And when the 1994 assault weapons ban was passed under the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton, it was part of a broader law, sponsored by now-vice president Joe Biden, which created 60 new federal death penalty offenses and funded the hiring of 100,000 more police. This was followed up by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which sharply curtails the right to appeal death sentences.
Today, the search for “illegal guns” is the excuse used by gun control zealot Mayor Bloomberg to justify the massive “stop and frisk” dragnet which has subjected New York City residents more than 5 million times, overwhelmingly (87%) against blacks and Latinos, to police inspection for no reason. That this is obvious racial profiling was proven by a tape recording presented in a lawsuit by the Center for Constitutional of a police commander in the South Bronx telling officers to go after “male blacks,” and more specifically “male blacks 14 to 20, 21” (New York Times, 22 March). Such stops have nothing to do with firearms (guns are found in only 0.12% of searches) and everything to do with intimidation and criminalizing young black men.
Gun Control and State Repression
In short, gun control laws have always been part of a broader offensive to increase state repression, which always has targeted the poor, the black, the most exploited and oppressed sections of capitalist society, and are used in particular against those who are seen as “hostile” by the ruling class. It is no accident that the most restrictive gun laws in the United States are in Washington, D.C., because that is where the political rulers reside and because at the time they were enacted (1975), Washington was the first large majority black city in the country. Internationally, Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa had draconian gun control laws, and when the Greek colonels took power in 1967, they immediately sought to disarm civilians.
In fact, there are striking parallels between the handgun ban in the Gun Control Act of 1968 and the 1938 Weapons Law of Nazi Germany, and not by accident. During the hearings on the 1968 bill, Democratic senator Thomas Dodd asked that the 1938 Nazi law be translated by the Library of Congress, using the German text which Dodd (who had been part of the prosecution team in the Nuremburg war crimes tribunal) supplied. The German law introduced handgun control, restricted gun ownership to “trustworthy” citizens, barred Jews from businesses involving firearms, and in a clause added on 10 November 1938 (the day after the Kristallnacht pogrom against Jews) barred Jews from owning any weapons, even knives and clubs.
While the 1960s laws restricted cheap handguns (“Saturday night specials”) in a racist move aimed at the black poor, the current uproar has focused on so-called “assault weapons.” The justification given is that the Newtown killer used an AR-15 rifle, a semi-automatic version of the M16 automatic rifle which is standard issue in the U.S. military in its wars and occupations such as Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact, relatively few murders, robberies and other violent crimes against persons are committed with rifles. The government’s real objection is to having anything approaching military-grade weapons in the hands of the population so that they could respond in self-defense when attacked.
This concern goes back through the ages. In the feudal Edo period in Japan, long swords were restricted to an aristocratic warrior caste, the samurai; when firearms were introduced in the 17th century, they too were limited to the samurai. But when feudalism was abolished under the Meiji Restoration beginning in 1868, feudal estates were taken over, samurai were banned from carrying swords, and a police force and standing army were created, as in almost all capitalist countries. In Mexico today, when the military and police seek to occupy areas of indigenous rebellions (Chiapas, Oaxaca) or regions dominated by drug traffickers, they arrest anyone with “arms of exclusive army use.”
Under capitalism, as in all class-divided societies, the rulers seek to keep their subjects at a qualitative military disadvantage. “Democratic” and dictatorial regimes alike claim a monopoly of “legitimate” force in order to suppress revolt. On the opposite side of the class divide, those fighting for revolution to sweep away the bourgeois social order of exploitation, poverty, racism and war oppose any restrictions on the acquisition of means of self-defense. The working class will never match the enormous firepower of the U.S. bourgeoisie, which doesn’t hesitate to kill millions in its imperialist wars. But a revolution will only occur when the army itself is divided or paralyzed, and leading up to that the working class will have to deal with fascist bands and other scum.
In any case, a disarmed population would have great difficulty resisting the attacks of capital, which is why the capitalists seek this. The key obstacle to the struggle for socialism in the U.S. today is the lack of revolutionary, and often even of class consciousness on the part of American workers. The central task facing communists is overcoming that obstacle. But the fact that the American working class has arms, and is not likely to give up its guns without a fight, is a definite plus.
Gun control seeks to take that away. “Background checks” allow the police to decide who qualifies and who doesn’t. Black, Latino and white working people will find it far harder to get approval than wealthy whites. Under New York’s 1911 Sullivan Law, permits to carry concealed weapons, around 2,500 at last count, are limited mainly to retired cops (who not infrequently shoot their spouses, partners in crime and each other), celebrities, capitalists and cronies. Permit holders have included New York Times publisher (and gun control pusher) Arthur Ochs Sulzburger, filmmaker Robert DeNiro, pundit William Buckley Jr. and moguls Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Ronald Lauder and David, John, Lawrence and Winthrop Rockefeller.
Naturally, billionaire mayor Bloomberg is hot for gun control and doesn’t want “guns on the streets.” After all, as he boasted in 2011, “I have my own army in the NYPD, which is the seventh biggest army in the world.” If you don’t think this constitutes a private army, try demonstrating in front of his Upper East Side mansion. And if he ever leaves office, he’ll just surround himself with hired guns. If you are Joe or Jane Schmo or one of the hoi polloi (common folk), on the other hand, and you want to get a pistol permit in New York City, you can bet your last lottery ticket the answer is fuggedaboudit.
Regimenting the Population for War
Threatened by Silver Shirt fascists, in August 1938 the Trotskyist-led Minneapolis truck drivers Local 544 formed an official Union Defense Guard (above). The U.S. later used this in charging them with “sedition” for their revolutionary opposition to the imperialists’ World War II.
The push for gun control, along with ubiquitous police surveillance (CCTV cameras everywhere, drones in the sky), stepped-up police provocation and police clampdown on protest are part of an overall drive to regiment the population. For what? For war. Since the anti-Soviet Cold War ended in imperialist victory, we’ve had the “war on drugs” (in reality a war on black ghettos and Latino barrios, as well as Mexico and other Latin American countries), and since 11 September 2001 the “war on terror” (which is really a war to terrorize the peoples of the world into submission the dictates of Washington and Wall Street). There’s also trade war, currency war, and if U.S. hegemony is seriously challenged, shooting war against U.S. imperialism’s rivals.
This regimentation means a full-scale assault on civil liberties. Under current background check laws, individuals prohibited from buying guns include anyone involuntarily committed by a judge, those declared incompetent and those convicted of any drug offense, including misdemeanor possession of marijuana. But gun control legislation being pushed by the Obama-Biden White House would require disclosure of all medical records concerning mental health and all criminal records. The FBI would be required to obtain and keep these records in their NICS (National Instant Criminal Background Check System) database. This would effectively make medical professionals, therapists and pharmacists spies for the feds. If history is any indication, this surveillance will be used for more than just gun control. Count on it.
But whatever the current slogan, the working class is the ultimate target of the capitalist rulers. As the class struggle sharpens, workers have been and will be faced with the need to form workers defense guards and workers militias. From the 1892 Homestead, Pennsylvania steel strike, with its pitched battle between strikers and Pinkerton security guards, to the 1914 Ludlow, Colorado massacre of striking coal miners, to the 1917 strike of copper miners in Butte, Montana (where IWW organizer Frank Little was killed), to the 1921 battle of Blair Mountain in Logan County, West Virginia where 10,000 armed coal miners fought it out with an army of cops, finks and scabs, workers fought valiantly but were outgunned.
In the 1930s, the rise of the industrial unions of the CIO was prefigured by a series of citywide strikes in 1934 of longshoremen in San Francisco, truck drivers in Minneapolis and auto parts workers in Toledo. In each case the victorious strikers were led by “reds” and had to fight off attacks by police and National Guard troops. In Minneapolis, the Trotskyist-led Teamsters later set up a Union Defense Guard to fend off threatened attacks on the union hall by fascist Silver Shirts. In the 1941 sedition trial of 28 union activists and leaders of the Socialist Workers Party (18 of whom were eventually jailed) over their revolutionary opposition to the imperialist WWII, the U.S. declared the defense guard to be an overt act of arming workers in order to overthrow of the government.
The drive for gun control is a frontal assault on the right to black armed self-defense against racist vigilante and police attacks, and for the right of workers to arm themselves. Yet some reformist social democrats such as the International Socialist Organization join in. An article by Danny Katch, “Sticking to their Glocks” (Socialist Worker, 17 January) is shot through with bourgeois liberalism, portraying opponents of gun control as “crazy” NRA spokesmen, “billionaire libertarians” and “trigger-happy racists.” After spending a few sentences on the inequality of New York gun control laws, Katch’s main complaint about gun control legislation is that it will only be “a symbolic statement against violence, and a shallow one at that” – in other words, it won’t go far enough.
Piously intoning that “Leftists like myself traditionally oppose gun control” and claiming to “really believe in all that self defense stuff,” Katch adds:
“But the United States of 2013 is a country with a vast arsenal and surveillance apparatus. Let’s face it: the revolution won’t be purchased in the sporting goods department of Wal-Mart. So it doesn’t make sense to oppose gun control chiefly on the basis of any future armed rebellion.”
Nor does he oppose it on any other basis. Not a word about the black militants who fought off racist lynch mobs, arms in hand. On the contrary, Katch attacks Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law as do liberal Democrats like Jesse Jackson in their attempt to use the vigilante murder of Trayvon Martin to build support for gun control (see our article, “Lynch Law U.S.A.: The Racist Murder of Trayvon Martin,” The Internationalist, May 2012). Even more telling is a reader’s call for socialists to “think through how people’s genuine outrage and disgust over gun violence and crazy massacres can be channeled toward exposing and damaging the political right” by “banning of gun shows” (“Why the Right Wing Clings to Its Guns,” Socialist Worker, 22 January).
Other reformist outfits such as Solidarity and the red-white-and-blue Communist Party U.S.A. (which regularly calls for votes to Obama and just about any Democrat) join left liberals such as Mother Jones and The Nation magazines in going whole hog for gun control. So, too, do a number of unions. A March 27 demonstration in Harlem billed as “against gun violence” included representatives of Local 1199, SEIU 32BJ, CWA Local 1180, TWU Local 100, the United Federation of Teachers and Professional Staff Congress of CUNY. News accounts didn’t report any mention of the recent NYPD murder of Kimani Gray, nor the fact that handguns have already been outlawed for almost everyone in NYC for over a century.
If the Cops Have All the Guns…
So if reformist left, labor leaders and bourgeois “progressives” along with big city mayors got their way and guns in the hands of civilians were somehow banned, what would the result be? The police then would have free rein. This is supposed to be reassuring? According to a 2011 U.S. Department of Justice study covering 2003-2009, every year around 700 civilians die “in relation to an arrest,” over 400 of them classified as “homicide by law enforcement.” Taking a specific area, officers the Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Department (LASD) in 2010 fired on 260 people on the “perception” that they might have a gun. However, in 61 percent of the cases, the suspect turned out to be unarmed (Police Assessment Resource Center, 30th Semi-Annual Report, September 2011, cited in “Shoot First, Ask Questions Later,” Reason, January 2012).
One example of this pattern of wanton police shooting stands out. Amid the hysteria around gun violence, in early February Los Angeles police launched a manhunt for ex-officer Christopher Dorner. Denouncing rampant racism and corruption within the department, Dorner declared war on the LAPD, allegedly killing three (two police and a relative). The LAPD went wild, assigning 500 cops to the case. It sent out an all-points bulletin to be on the lookout for a black man driving a dark-colored pick-up truck. Clearly this was a shoot-to-kill order, and within hours T-shirts and signs appeared on vehicles saying “Not Dorner, Don’t Shoot.” Soon bumper stickers with the message were available on the Internet. People feared for their lives.
The concern was justified. On the morning of February 7, police shot three people, including two slight Hispanic women (one of them 71 years old) delivering newspapers. The pattern of the more than two dozen bullet holes in the ladies’ vehicle focusing on the driver makes it clear that the fusillade was an intended execution. Then when they finally tracked Dorner down in a cabin near Big Bear, the police deliberately burned the place down. “We’re going to go ahead with the plan, with the burner,” said a San Bernardino County Sherriff’s deputy on the police radio. Several seconds later another said, “Seven burners deployed. And we have a fire” (Los Angeles Times, 14 February). They then let the fire burn for a long time. Clearly the cops wanted Dorner dead, not talking to the media.
It was a replay of the Waco, Texas massacre 20 years earlier of the Branch Davidian religious group by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, ordered by the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton. The alleged reason for the initial February 1993 ATF raid was to look for weapons. The FBI then set up a siege, surrounding the compound with hundreds of troops and cops. Finally after 50 days it launched an all-out assault, approved by Attorney General Janet Reno, in which 76 members of the racially integrated commune were killed. The feds poured CS gas into the building which then ignited in the barrage of gunfire, as they knew it would.
Ardent advocates of gun control should love the 1993 Waco massacre, because that’s what it leads to on a large scale. Likewise, “stop and frisk,” supposedly to search for illegal guns, leads directly to the 2013 police assassination of Kimani Gray, because that’s what the NYPD procedure leads to. Both were “according to regulations.” Both were murder. And when there is protest, the response is to impose a police state on the black and immigrant residents of the Brooklyn neighborhood. As demonstrators chanted at a March 25 demonstration in East Flatbush: “Kimani’s dead, the cops go free, that’s what they call democracy.”
Adam Lanza, a deranged youth, shot and killed 26 people, including 20 children in the gruesome Sandy Hook school massacre. Barack Obama has ordered drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, personally signing off on everyone on his “kill list,” that have killed somewhere between 3,000 and 4,500 people, including at least 1,000 civilians and close to 200 children in Pakistan alone (Columbia Law School, The Civilian Impact of Drones: Unexamined Costs, Unanswered Questions [September 2012]). Who, then, is the bigger mass murderer?
The appeal for “non-violence” by advocates of gun control is the luxury of wealthy whites who believe the police protect them. Not so for poor African Americans, Latinos, immigrants and working people. The prevalence of violent crime in impoverished urban neighborhoods is not the result of the legality or even availability of guns. If it were, you would see the same in upscale suburban communities. It is the result of poverty, homelessness, joblessness and all the other social ills that plague oppressed populations, and it is exacerbated by the racist police.
Placing a monopoly of violence in the hands of the repressive apparatus of the capitalist state and leaving civilians unarmed and defenseless will only intensify the killing. Looking to bourgeois politicians – who with their “anti-crime” rhetoric have created the biggest system of mass incarceration in the world, capped by the barbaric death penalty – to bring peace to the streets of urban America is begging a fox to guard a chicken coop. And thinking that the black president in the White House, commander in chief of the most violent and murderous military apparatus on the planet, will protect black people from racist violence is a deadly illusion.
As for Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, promising that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed,” that is indeed a statement of the individual right to own guns, including for protection against a despotic state, one that goes back to the American Revolution of 1776 and before that to the English Revolution of 1640. But like the rest of the Bill of Rights, including the right to freedom of association, to equal protection under the law, against unreasonable search and seizure, etc., these basic democratic rights are under attack by the very state that claims to embody them.
Thus the Internationalist Group looks to the power of the working class to make society anew, through workers revolution that will sweep away the present society with its routine and brutal oppression, which spawns the kind of violent rampages carried in Newtown and Clackamas, in Columbine, Colorado or Virginia Tech, and replace the present state of the exploiters and oppressors with a workers state in which those who labor rule, and which can open the road to a socialist society on a worldwide scale in which poverty, wars and racism will be relics of the past to be studied in history books, not tragically experienced in daily life.
Our task is to get from here to there, and for that we need to build a revolutionary workers party. The problem in U.S. society today isn’t gun control, it’s who controls the guns. ■
Bogalusa1965: Deacons for Defense
Charles Sims of the Deacons for Defense and Justice in Bogalusa stands defiantly on courthouse steps holding Klan hoods.
In 1919, Bogalusa, Louisiana made the national news when white members of the Carpenters union were murdered by company gunmen and racist vigilantes for taking up arms to defend black union members (see “Bloody Bogalusa, 1919: When Four White Unionists Died Defending Their Black Comrades” at www.internationalist.org). In 1965, Bogalusa again was in national headlines. An armed self-defense organization had been formed the previous year by blacks in Jonesboro, Louisiana to protect civil rights activists from the Klan and other racist vigilantes. The Jonesboro group then organized a chapter in Bogalusa, Louisiana led by Charles Sims, which publicly surfaced in February 1965 as the “Deacons for Defense and Justice.”
Bogalusa was a company town. By 1965, the Great Southern sawmill had closed down and was replaced by a paper mill, then owned by Crown-Zellerbach (today by International Paper). At that point, the black community in Bogalusa was poor and isolated, with many living in shanties. It was also Klan country. The mill employed a dwindling number of blacks, concentrated in the worst, low-paying jobs. Yet the experience of union activism had a lot to do with the rise of the Deacons, which was a distinctly working-class organization. In Bogalusa, it took shape from a new leadership of the local Voters League around A.Z. Young, who for several years led the black local of the Pulp and Sulphite Workers Union, along with fellow paper mill worker Robert Hicks.
Lance Hill, in his book The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement (University of North Carolina Press, 2004), wrote that “The first meeting of the Bogalusa Deacons took place ...at the Negro Union Hall,” where they met weekly thereafter. As clashes with the KKK grew, leadership passed to Charles Sims, who had been a sergeant with the army in Europe during World War II. Hill notes that in addition to the core group, the Bogalusa chapter of the Deacons had scores of supporters, “perhaps numbering nearly two hundred, [who] were mostly paper mill employees who were willing to help with security as needed.”
The Deacons guarded civil rights marches and patrolled black neighborhoods with radios, walkie-talkies, pistols and M-1 rifles. By the end of 1966, the group had grown to 17 chapters in the South. The Bogalusa Deacons were not only involved in shoot-outs with the local Klan, but also had stand-offs with the police as well. In large measure, the armed presence of the Deacons forced local officials and business leaders to agree to abolish all segregation laws, provide equal protection for protesters, open up city government hiring and provide sewers, paved streets and lights for black neighborhoods in May 1965. The formal desegregation of the local high school meant renewed confrontations with the Klan. Even in 1967 blacks who dared to enter restaurants now allegedly open to them still needed to be escorted by the Deacons.
The Deacons were fighting for an end to formal Jim Crow. They did not explicitly challenge the turn-the-other-cheek pacifism of Martin Luther King, Jr. and initially served mainly as a support group to organizing efforts by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) which at that time was equally committed to non-violence. But they pragmatically understood not only the role of the local cops as accomplices of the Klan, but also of the federal government, since the Deacons were subjected to surveillance and harassment from the FBI from their inception. Sims, for example, was equally skeptical about the use of federal troops, correctly seeing that their presence would merely freeze the racist status quo.
It was quite symbolic for the Deacons that one of their members kept a derringer pistol in a hollowed-out bible. As a report by then-Trotskyist Spartacist League noted at the time, there was a duality to them: “on the one hand, highly militant, paramilitary tactics are used to protect their struggle; on the other hand, comparatively mild, anti-discrimination politics relying heavily on the 1964 Civil Rights Act characterize their political perspectives” (Spartacist No. 5, November-December 1965). A July 1967 report by the Louisiana legislature’s “Committee on Unamerican Activities” on “The Spartacist League and Certain Other Communist Activities in South Louisiana” as well as FBI files released later showed that local, state and federal police closely monitored the SL’s activities in support of the Deacons and the latter’s armed self-defense of civil rights struggles in the South.
Towards the end of the group’s existence (the Deacons had largely disappeared by 1968), individual Deacon spokesmen became more explicit in upholding the right of self-defense as against King’s moral suasion. But although they were courted by both the Black Muslims and the black nationalist Revolutionary Action Movement inspired by Robert F. Williams, the Deacons never went beyond vague calls for “black power.” As a group which had carefully and successfully organized primarily against white vigilante groups, efforts to set up locals in the urban North, where racist violence was mainly the work of the police, proved unsuccessful. It was to be the Black Panthers who championed armed black self-defense directly against the bourgeois state, and were met with murderous repression.
The Deacons lasted as long as formal segregation. Yet today black people in allegedly “post-racial” America are still a race-color caste segregated at the bottom of U.S. capitalist society. The struggle for social liberation urgently requires the leadership of a revolutionary workers party that will achieve genuine equality for blacks and all the oppressed by the only means possible – sweeping away bankrupt, racist American capitalism through international socialist revolution. ■
The story of black armed self-defense in Bogalusa is portrayed in the excellent film Deacons for Defense (2003) starring Forest Whitaker.