REFLECTIONS UPON AN OBITUARY IN THE NYT...Deacons for Defense, ML King, Malcolm X, Bhagat Singh, Ghandhi & Armed Peasant Rebellion in India
Robert Hicks, one of the few surviving members of the Deacons for Defense, died April 13 in Bogalusa, LA. A black paper mill worker, his home was threatened with attack by the KKK in February of 1965 because he was providing housing for two white civil rights workers. This was just six months after the murder of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
After moving his wife and child out of the house he called upon neighbors for help and soon they came armed with rifles and shotguns. The Klan didn't show up. Hicks was visited by members of the newly organized black armed self-defense group, that had begun in Jonesboro, Louisiana, and agreed to start a chapter in Bogalusa. The Deacons grew to have chapters in more than two dozen communities in the deep south. Hicks was a leader of the Deacons and also was know for his activism demanding and litigating that the voting rights act of 1964 be put into effect by local officials.
Martin Luther King was not comfortable with the Deacons for Defense's stand on the right of armed self-defense and publicly criticized them. James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) defended the Deacons as a "partnership of brothers" who did not "lynch people or burn down houses" like the KKK.
I was active in the civil rights movement during that time (I still have my 1961 NAACP membership card autographed by John Coltrane, Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner). I participated in starting a CORE chapter in Indianapolis in 1964 and avidly followed what was happening in the movement around the country.
While seeing the importance of Dr. King and the SCLC in inspiring masses into action: marches, sit-ins picket lines, boycotts of businesses that practiced segregation, and so on, I and others in the movement joined in these actions, but also looked favorably upon the more radical Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and Malcolm X as pointing the way towards a deeper social change in the USA.
At that time, King cautiously avoided making an issue out of the growing US war in Vietnam. In fact most of the civil rights establishment were "patriotic" and supported the war and other imperial polices of the White House (against Cuba, for example). When King came out against the war in his famous Riverside Church speech in 1967, he was reviled by the media and the pro-Vietnam war civil right establishment. When he was killed in Memphis he was helping a strike by black sanitation workers.
One vivid memory of those times I can relate: In 1965 I was involved in organizing the first anti-Vietnam rally at Indiana University in Bloomington. We started the event after there had been an earlier march in support of the civil rights movement in Selma, Alabama where they had been set upon by dogs and beaten by the police. When I got up to speak and mentioned that James Farmer, the leader of CORE and a well-known major leader of the civil rights movement, opposed the Vietnam war, I was booed by some of the campus civil rights marchers who had come to the rally. One professor shouted "how dare you use James Farmer's name to speak against the War!"
While King was marching in the South, Malcolm X spoke for the differently situated blacks of the Northern ghettos. His spellbinding orations related their plight to the anti-colonial struggles of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, and the FLN of Algeria.
In the days of Selma, the Watts ghetto rebellion (and Detroit and Newark, etc) I looked on non-violence as a tactic (as I do now). It was obvious that a mass movement to eliminate the Jim Crow system in the South and racial discrimination should be peaceful. But what to do about violent attacks? Were the Deacons for Defense wrong? Their methods were successful...at the time and in their specific context.
Their actions for self-defense against violent KKK attacks were right and deserve to be respected as part of the whole, broad 1960s civil rights movement. The Deacons were the best known black armed self-defense force, but there were others around the South.
Were the violent and sometimes armed (gunfire from blacks citizens actually stopped the initial National Guard incursion into the Detroit ghetto in the summer of 1967) rebellions "wrong?" They were social uprisings caused by intolerable conditions, racism and everyday police harassment. Often a gross act of police brutality detonated a social explosion.
When looking at social gains or the social legislation of the 60s and early 70s, you have to keep in mind that violent social unrest played its part.
Ideological pacifists don't seem to take into account the role the ruling classes fear of violent revolution plays in their willingness to make concessions to mass peaceful movements. They are not being moral or changing their ways, they are picking the lesser of two evils and biding their time until they have an advantage and can strike back.
And strike back they have. Much has been rolled back from the 60s. Reagan's proclaiming "the South will rise again" at a campaign speech in Meridian, Mississippi (near the murder site of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney) in 1980 illustrated the consolidation of the Republican's "Southern Strategy." The roll backs of the '80s and '90s skipped past the 60s and included rolling back constraints upon rampant capitalism instituted in the 1930s, including the right of workers to have union representation.
The passive resistance movement of Ghandi, from today's vantage point, can arguably be said to be a failure. Independence was achieved, but what else? One million died in the transfer of populations in 1948 between the newly partitioned Pakistan and India. India boasts a new affluent class and rising high tech industries, but India and Pakistan are now aiming nuclear weapons at each other and sporadically at war over Kashmir. Most Indians are still impoverished village dwellers. There is more than one vigorous armed peasant rebellions in India today. It has been the only recourse for desperately oppressed poor farmers who face displacement and starvation (see Arundati Roy's article "with the comrades").
Actually there was an armed resistance to the British occupation that went on parallel to Ghandi's movement. Bhagat Singh was a martyr to millions of Indians.In the 1920s He was hanged by the British for the killing of a hated British official who had troops fire on demonstrators. Indian students in my ESL class at the Technical Institute where I teach taught me about Bhagat Singh and brought videos about Singh and his influence (for educational purposes only, of course) to class. One is "Rang De Bisanti" another is "The Legend of Bhagat Singh."
Anyway, I don't want to push a point too far. But seeing the obituary of Robert Hicks brought back some memories and made me reflect upon what has happened over the last few decades.