Sep 8, 2003
"Deacons for Defense" is a film based on true events that took place in Bogalusa, Louisiana, during the Civil Rights Movement. Even if the characters are fictional, they are based on the experiences of people in Bogalusa.
The movie starts in 1965, when this town was still officially segregated. The Klan there had an especially long history of violence, including lynchings and attacks on civil rights organizations. The central character of the story is Marcus Clay, a black worker at a paper plant which provides Bogalusa 70% of its income. The plant is segregated, and black workers are never promoted beyond the lowest-paying menial jobs. When Marcus's friend and neighbor, T.J., applies for an opening for supervisor, white workers, who are also members of the Klan, badly beat him. Marcus doesn't help T.J. for fear of retaliation against his family.
Marcus's attitude changes when he sees the police brutally beating civil rights protesters, including his own teenage daughter. For protecting his daughter, it's Marcus's turn to get beaten by the cops – many of whom are also members of the Klan. Finally convinced that being timid offers no protection for black people anyway, Marcus suggests that the community arm itself in defense against the Klan's violence.
The people are more than ready to act on Marcus's suggestion. They form an armed organization, which they call "Deacons for Defense." Armed with rifles and baseball bats, the Deacons stand their ground against the Klan's attacks.
The Deacons' strength comes from the black population, which stands united behind its armed organization. The population is now determined to fight segregation and Klan terror at any cost. The boycotts and strikes bring financial pressure to bear on the bosses. The corporation that owns the paper plant sees itself forced to order the local manager to desegregate. The federal government follows suit, ordering local officials, all of whom are in fact tied to the Klan, to stop the attacks against black people.
"Deacons for Defense" does a good job showing the development and different aspects of this struggle. It shows, realistically, how terror can uphold oppression against an entire population – but only up to a certain point. The movie also shows how racism and segregation are used by the bosses to divide the workers, keeping wages low for everyone.
"Deacons for Defense" also shows two conflicting realities of the Civil Rights Movement. On the one hand, Klan violence and the protection it received from government officials made it necessary for the black population to form independent organizations to defend itself. The strategy of "non-violence" promoted by some of the movement's leaders, however, stood opposed to this – and not because these leaders, who had armed bodyguards themselves, were opposed to all violence. They were against the black population arming itself in its own defense, asking it instead to depend on the government.
Regardless of how this history is taught in schools today, the fight against segregation and Klan terror could not have been won without the black population's readiness to defend itself, with arms if necessary.
"Deacons for Defense" was made for TV, but it's now available in video stores. It's definitely worth seeing!