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Skeleton in the Closet’

To the Editors:

George M. Fredrickson’s review of recent works on slavery [NYR, November 1, 2000] stressed the neglected brutality of that institution, while Larry McMurtry’s review [NYR, December 21, 2000] highlighted the lynchings that became the white South’s ultimate sanction against post-Reconstruction blacks. However, I believe there is another “skeleton in the closet” of US black–white relations which to my knowledge has not been addressed. That is the ongoing resistance of African-Americans against white oppression.

I am not speaking of the well-known slave rebellions, famous but momentary efforts of Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, and others, nor of urban riots and revolts in more recent years. I mean, rather, the daily, constant efforts of black Americans, especially in the South, to defend themselves, their families and communities, not only through strategies of outward conformance or of invisibility, but through armed self-defense, since Reconstruction. I mean the shotgun behind the door.

I give two examples. Entering a small Louisiana town as a Northern civil rights volunteer in the 1960s, I learned that our group would be protected, during our voter registration efforts, by a local organization established in several Louisiana communities, the Deacons for Defense and Justice. These were not the public leaders of the communities, who interacted with the white power structure, but men familiar with guns. As I ferried volunteers to their lodgings in the “Negro Quarters” each night, in my Volkswagen bus, followed by whites seeking to track us to our homes, I was accompanied by two “outriders” with shotguns. All night long, every night, Deacons patrolled all of the homes lodging CORE workers. When their numbers grew short, I was deputized as a deacon, carrying a handgun as student volunteers from my college went door to door. (I was older, and a teacher, hence the choice.)

As the mood in that small company town became increasingly threatening, there was a shoot-out. The back of my Volks bus was blown out (it was parked and empty at the time). Shots were exchanged: there was rumored injury to a white. This was no singular incident, but where is the recounting of self-defensive black actions during the civil rights years?

Later, a black student of mine, who had moved with his family to California from rural Texas, told me of a vigilante group active in his home area, termed the “Ax Men.” One of their functions was the murder of any offspring of mixed-race unions. An acquaintance of my student, a twelve-year-old girl, was so murdered. No wonder that many homes had a shotgun behind the door.

And no wonder, given this longstanding circumstance, that Ida B. Wells, a co-founder of the NAACP and leader in the anti-lynching movement of the turn of the last century, should have remarked, “The Remington rifle should have a place of honor in every black home.” To acknowledge the long history of African-American self-defense will require some uncomfortable reexamination of issues of gun control and access, for it scarcely needs noting that African-Americans have found it difficult to obtain weapons legally, especially in the South. Such acknowledgment would also demand a revision of the overwhelmingly pacifist version of the civil rights movement which is current at least in the white liberal community.

Perhaps there is another reason for this historical suppression and denial, a fear that to acknowledge such agency will provoke even more brutal repression. That I cannot judge. It seems to me, however, that it is time for historians (and especially oral historians) to redress this omission, so that the record of armed self-defense by post-Reconstruction black Americans can take its place in our history, just as the fact of Jewish resistance to the Holocaust has now become an integral part of the history of the Holocaust.

Jeffrey M. Dickemann, Ph.D.
Professor of Anthropology Emeritus
Sonoma State University
Richmond, California

George Fredrickson replies:

Mr. Dickemann has a point. But historians have not completely overlooked the kind of self-defense to which he refers. There is an excellent account of the activities of the Deacons for Defense and Justice in Adam Fairclough’s book Race and Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana 1915–1972 (Louisiana State University Press, 1995).

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