(Another chapter from “Absolved”, an upcoming novella)
Then what shall we call ourselves
And still keep our right to be a man
For the time has surely come
For us to take our stand.
The man that asked the question threw out an idea:
Let’s call ourselves the Deacons and never have no fear,
They will think we are from the church
Which has never done much
And gee, to our surprise
It really worked.
— Song, “Deacons for Defense and Justice,” Frederick Douglas Kirkpatrick, quoted in The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement, by Lance Hill, 2004, p. 16
3 February 1965: Bogalusa, Louisiana – The Skirmish at Andrey’s Cafe
He was back in Korea, cold, scared and mad as hell when somewhere in the distance, at the edges of his consciousness, a phone rang.
Bobby Williams, third shift maintenance man at the Crown-Zellerbach paper plant, wasn’t due to get up for another three hours. He groaned and rolled over, burying his head deeper into the pillow.
It kept ringing.
A thought penetrated the haze. Where was Lucy?
“Crap,” Bobby muttered, and threw the covers back and sat up.
The phone stopped.
“Figures,” he sighed.
He could hear Lucille talking, her voice rising, but couldn’t make out the words. Sitting on the side of the bed in his underwear, he rubbed his eyes and then ran his right hand back and forth over the close cropped hair on his head, trying to lose the grogginess. He looked at the clock on the nightstand.
He’d never get back to sleep now. Might as well get up.
As he did, his wife threw open the door and blurted out, “Bobby! Joe Baker says those two white boys from CORE is getting beat to death by the Klan down in front of Andrey’s. He says meet him at Aunt Sylvie’s right behind there as soon as you can.”
She paused, and then in fear for her husband moaned aloud, “Oh, Bobby.”
Bobby Williams was awake instantly. They had planned for this, him and Joe and some of the men from the plant.
“Get my rifle and my clips from the front closet,” he ordered and set about throwing on his clothes. They were dirty from the night before, draped over the chipped wooden chair in the corner.
If’n I die in ’em, t’won’t matter one way or t’other if they’re clean or dirty, he thought.
He yelled after his wife through the open door, “And get me a glass of water!”
Thirsty, he remembered with a tight smile. Combat always did make me thirsty.
In about as much time as it takes to tell, Bobby Williams met his wife at the front door. His Garand leaned against the doorframe. Lucy stood there, as beautiful as the day he married her despite the two daughters she’d borne him and a third child almost here any day now and everything else in a hate-filled world gone crazy. His glass of of water was in her left hand and the bandoleer marked “.30 Caliber M-2 Ball” in her right.
Their eyes met.
Lord, she had pretty eyes. It was her eyes that first drew him to her, that afternoon at the church picnic that seemed like an eternity ago now. At this instant, tears were forming in them.
Bobby took the glass from her hand, tenderly, and gulped down the water. Then, words failing him, he hugged Lucy tight for a long moment, her swollen belly pressing against him. He released her, took the bandoleer from her hand and slung it over his head so it dangled on his right side.
Then he grabbed the rifle and ran out the front door.
Behind him, Lucille Wiliiams began to sob.
A historian would later write that “the eatery was a tiny matchbox of a building, little more than a single room 15 by 15 feet.” But just right now, it was a battlefield in a war.
And the first shots had already been fired.
Bill Yates and Steve Miller were two white activists of the Congress of Racial Equality, come to Bogalusa that day to meet with local black labor officials down at the Negro Union Hall. When they left the Hall to drive back to New Orleans in Miller’s car, they noticed a shadowing vehicle full of white guys. As it happened, and it was no coincidence, the car held five stalwarts of the Original Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. They were there to teach these two “nigger lovers” a lesson about meddling in things that weren’t any concern of theirs.
The two unarmed civil rights activists, knowing that if they continued on out of town along the narrow two-lane highway that ran between Bogalusa and New Orleans they would be easy pickings, pulled into Andrey’s to use the pay phone to call for help.
Yates, the older man, leaped out of the car and hit the ground running, making for the front door. The Klan vehicle pulled in front of Miller’s blocking the path. Shots rang out, though no one was hit, and one of the Kluxers threw brick at Miller’s car.
The Klansmen leaped out and ran down Yates before he could get inside the cafe. Throwing him to the ground, they began to dance on him a bit. The Kluxers toyed with him, giving him a broken hand and severe internal injuries, before he escaped and staggered into the front door of Andrey’s. Miller backed his car out of the roadblock and then on around the back of the cafe, parked it and joined his injured friend inside.
As Yates held his sides and groaned, Miller peeked out the door and saw four more carloads of Klansmen join the first and slowly drive up, down and around the cafe, “circling their prey,” as one historian later put it.
They were trying to work their courage up for another go at it.
Miller began to feed coins into the pay phone, calling everybody he knew. Local white telephone operators refused to put through calls to the black community, so Miller called his mother long distance in San Francisco, who in turn called other civil rights activists who in their turn called the FBI and the Louisiana state attorney general and the media.
“Remember Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney?” Miller asked a UPI reporter on the phone. “Well you’re talking to the next ones right here. We’re about to get it.”
But Miller, understandly panicked, was exaggerating the situation. He was wrong for two reasons.
First, the Klan had a problem. Surprised by the dash into Andrey’s parking lot, they had jumped the CORE activists at the edge of Bogalusa’s Negro community. This wasn’t some lonely road with no witnesses. Although the streets had emptied when the shots were fired, there were any number of witnesses peeking out from windows and doorways.
In addition, some of these men, the leaders, were well-known in the black community. They knew that. Even so, the Klan had reigned around Bogalusa for almost a hundred years. They owned the local police, the Sheriff, and other politicians.
But still, their courage, if you can call it that in such cravenly human specimens, failed them. Too stupid to carry out their original plan correctly, too scared to finish the job and too proud to just call it a day and drive away, they waited. They waited until something very strange happened — that second thing I was talking about.
It was something almost unprecedented in the Klan’s experience heretofore. Something they’d talked a lot about, but had never, in their secret heart of hearts, ever thought would happen.
And that something was the Deacons for Defense and Justice.
The paper plant workers watched from concealment (not cover, Bobby recognized ruefully) at the back of Aunt Sylvie’s as the Klan cars paraded up and down in front of Andrey’s Cafe and then stop for a palaver as the Kluxers discussed what to do. They watched the Klan and Aunt Sylvie watched them from her back window, unbelievingly.
“Black mens with guns, Lord have mercy,” she worried.
The men were all blown from the exertion of their various runs to get to the rendezvous. Sweating profusely despite the cool February weather, Joe Baker wheezed air in and out of his tortured lungs and complained, “Damn, I’m too old for this shit.”
Bobby Williams smiled at him, “I been telling you you gotta quit smoking. It just kills your wind.”
Baker, a short, lean man with skin the color of coffee with cream, just wheezed and spat, looking back sourly at Bobby, who was ten years younger, twice his size and three times blacker.
Bobby took stock one last time. One Garand, an M-1 Carbine, two lever-action .30-30 deer rifles, a twelve gauge pump shotgun and the .45 automatic that Joe Baker had brought back from the Pacific twenty years ago. Aside from Bobby and Bill Waverly, the guy with the carbine, they had maybe twenty rounds apiece, no more. Bill only had a fifteen round mag for back up and a thirty round banana mag in the weapon. Forty five rounds. Bobby had eight in the Garand and forty-eight in the bandoleer.
That was it. Plus the lever-actions and the shotgun would be slow in reloading.
Thin, real thin. Well, he’d fought Chinks with less. And these mostly-fat crackers ain’t nearly as tough as Chinks.
He smiled, as much to give his men courage as anything. Bobby decided.
“Alright, we’ll do this one at a time. I’ll go first, then you Joe, then the rest of you. The ones behind will cover the one crossing. The next to last man covers the last man from the backdoor, got it? Bill, you got the carbine and plenty of firepower so you come last. We’re puttin’ all of us into that little shack, I know, but reinforcements are on the way and I want to make a good show.”
He swallowed hard. Thirsty again, his mouth was dry as dust.
“Don’t start anything. But if they start shootin’, shoot to kill.”
Bobby paused, looking at them in their faces, each in turn. They’d talked about this, but they’d never practiced it. Still, every man was a veteran of some war. The Army or Marines had trained them, and trained them well.
Bobby grunted softly. Well, it would just have to do.
“You with me?”
“Yeah,” the other men, led by Joe, muttered their assent, some of them just nodding.
Yeah, they were determined.
This Klan shit ends here.
Bobby looked again. No time like the present. He leaped up and sprinted with his Garand held at high port in front of him across the danger space, and came to rest with his back to Andrey’s back door.
Out front, Joe Carl Thornton saw him.
“Hollingsworth!” he yelled to one of the Klan leaders, “I just saw a nigger with a gun run into the back! Shit! There goes another one!”
Another Kluxer from down the block yelled, “Hell, there’s a bunch of ’em!”
The Kluxers who had guns raised them, but hesitated, uncertain about what to do as most of them couldn’t see what was happening. Autie Shingler, whose only weapon was a baseball bat, looked down at the Louisville Slugger stupidly and shuddered. He didn’t want to die in no shootout with no niggers this day or any other.
Delos Williams, another Klan leader and no relation to Bobby, yelled out the pertinent question, “How many of ’em?”
“Hell,” yelled the second man, almost plaintively, “I don’t know. Mebbe six or seven, mebbe a dozen!”
“Goddam!” Hollingsworth spat. “Goddam!”
Niggers with guns. This shit was serious. Gotta get the cops in here to run ’em off.
“Joe Carl,” he ordered, “Get on that police radio and tell ’em we need some deputies to run off these coons!”
Niggers with guns.
That was a different deal altogether.
Shit, Hollingsworth thought. Even if the cops talk ’em into leaving, they’ll take them two pointy-headed Yankee agitators with ’em. I guess the fun’s over for today.
Even so, the Klan stayed as the afternoon started to fade toward darkness.
But the Kluxers now peered behind them into the deepening gloom, and wondered, “How many of these black bastards with guns are there?”
And another thought followed that swiftly, “Am I in their sights right now?”
Even as the other men followed him across, Bobby Williams opened the back door at Andrey’s and walked in past the cook, who took one look at the leveled M-1 rifle in the maintenance man’s hands and grinned.
He’d been ready to use his sawed off shotgun if the Kluxers had come into his place, but now he was off the hook. The Deacons were here.
Miller saw Bobby out of the corner of his eye and just about dropped the phone. He knew they’d been guarded by armed men a couple of nights before when the Sheriff started floating a rumor that a white lynch mob was coming to hang him and Yates, and he recognized Bobby as one of the men who had been there. A feeling of total relief flooded through him. They would not die alone this day, beaten to a pulp even as their non-violent beliefs forbade them to fight back. These men would protect him. It wasn’t until later that he realized how hypocritical he was. One thing for sure, Miller thought, these guys know the drill.
After a glance around the room, Bobby eased over to the front door, taking in the enemy’s dispositions with a series of peeks. His men silently arrayed themselves at each door and window, covering the streets outside and each other. These guys have been there before, thought Miller.
The white boy was still frightened though, and after realizing that help had arrived but the Klan wasn’t going anywhere, he began feeding nickels in the payphone again. He couldn’t get a dial tone and he panicked.
“They cut off the phones! They cut off the phones!” he shouted, looking at Booby and the other men.
“Son,” said one, “you got to put a nickel in there first.”
Miller looked down. The white boy fished another nickel out of his pocket, tried it and got a dial tone. Sheepishly, he went back to calling the outside world.
“Reinforcements are here,” called Bill Waverly from the back, and three more men entered. Bobby wasn’t having any of that. There were too many men in here already.
“Look,” he said quietly, reasonably, “there’s too many folks in here already and we need y’all to watch the perimeter and cover us from out there.”
“Well, where do you want us?” one asked.
“C’mon,” said Bobby, “I’ll show you where to stand.”
This next part was a little dicey, Bobby knew. He didn’t want the Klan to think they were pulling out, so he decided to ignore them.
He turned to the newcomers.
“Now follow me nice and slow and DON’T get ahead of me. Don’t bunch up, but don’t run, walk,” he commanded.
The three newbies looked at each other and then nodded in unison.
Nervous as he was about what he was about to do, Bobby almost laughed. He shook his head.
“All, right,” he commanded, “follow me.”
Returning the hold on his weapon to high port, Bobby Williams stepped out into the late afternoon and strolled back to the Aunt Sylvie’s place. His reinforcements likewise gripped their weapons and followed like a gaggle of baby ducks, two steps behind the man in front.
“Damn!” said a Kluxer to his buddy who was off to the side enough to see the procession, “Look at that shit.”
When he made the concealment at the edge of Aunt Sylvie’s place, he began to breathe again. One by one, the newbies joined him, out of sight now from the Kluxers. He looked around.
“OK,” he pointed, “you, over by that shed, you by the old jalopy over there and you,” pointing to the man with another carbine, “you stay right here. Keep a three-sixty look out. Don’t let nobody sneak up on you or on us. If anybody comes to firebomb the cafe, you kill ’em, you understand?”
They all nodded.
“You,” he pointed to the man with the carbine.
“You know how to use that thing?”
“Yeah, I was in Korea later than you, but I was there. You ever hear of a place called Pork Chop Hill?”
“Yeah,” grinned Bobby, “I heard of it.”
He paused, looking down at the man’s belt. “How many mags you got?”
“Six, one in the carbine and four in here.” He slapped the olive drab canvas case on his belt. “And one more in my pocket. All thirties. Hardbacks. They’ll work.”
“OK,” Bobby conceded with a grin, “you’ll do. You be my squad leader out here. Anybody else shows up, you put ’em where they can cover over there,” he pointed, “and over there,” pointing over on the other side. “Don’t let ’em get too far spread out but don’t bunch ’em up either. I want you as a base of fire we can fall back on if it gets too hot up there,” pointing at Andrey’s Cafe.
He looked at his new corporal. “What’s your name?”
“OK, Demmings, I’m countin’ on you.”
“Right, we ain’t goin’ anywhere.”
“You best not, or you’ll have a helluva lot more than the Klan to worry about,” Bobby said with a glower and then spoiled it by grinning.
Demmings grinned back.
“We’ll be here.”
“Oh, yeah, one more thing. Can I have that extra mag you’ve got in your pocket? I got a man in there with a carbine who’s a little light on ammo.”
Demmings hestitated, then agreed.
“Sure,” he said, handing the thirty rounder over, “Iffen you get killed, I’ll just get it back from the Coroner afterward.”
Bobby snorted. He’ll do, he thought. And then he did something even harder than the first walk over.
He walked back.
He stood to his full six feet two inches, slung his Garand like he was on the parade ground, and marched, yes marched, slowly back to Andrey’s. Head erect, eyes straight, focused on a spot just about the back door. His old DI would have been proud. “Damn,” said the Kluxer, “Look at that uppity nigger. LOOK at him.”
None of the Kluxers who saw him as much as raised a muzzle. They were flabbergasted. THIS had NEVER happened before. It was beyond their experience. And it scared the excremental bejeezus out of each and every one of them.
Inside, the Deacons welcomed Bobby back in with a whoop and a holler.
“Damn, boy!” exclaimed Joe Baker, “that was as cool as a cucumber in the deep shade. You damn near BEGGED them crackers to shoot you!”
Bobby grinned, and then turned serious.
“Get back on your windows and keep watch!”
But secretly, deep in his gut, he smiled. The crackers were cowards. If they wouldn’t shoot at him when he paraded like a tom turkey at a shoot, they wouldn’t when he could shoot back at them from cover. This was going to be all right. It wasn’t over. But unless somebody really screwed this up by doing something stupid, it was going to be all right.
As if to prove Bobby Williams right, by the time it got good and dark the frustrated Klan took counsel of their fears and drove off. But no one knew whether they had left any stay-behinds out there or not.
The Deacons kept watch, from Andrey’s, the lights turned down low.
Maybe now is a good time to just let the history books tell it like it was:
Eventually FBI Special Agent Frank Sass in New Orleans reached Miller on the pay phone in Andrey’s. The Klan caravan circling the block had melted away at sunset, but it was still unsafe for Miller and Yates to leave the cafe. Agent Sass told Miller not to leave until Sass could come to Bogalusa and talk to local authorities.
Miller retorted that the agent should not delay calling the Bogalusa officials; he and Yates needed protection immediately, and they had already notified the media. “The whole world is watching,” Miller warned.
As the resident agent for Bogalusa, Sass was familiar with the recent civil rights activities there. He soon arrived at Andrey’s but balked at entering the building. “Steven Miller, come on out,” yelled the agent in his distinctive southern drawl. One of the black guards cautioned Miller that the cafe door was illuminated by a light, making Miller a clear target if he ventured outside. “Don’t go out there and silhouette yourself, boy,” warned the man.
So Miller told Sass to come in if he wanted to talk. The FBI agent opened the door and took a few steps inside. He was not prepared for the scene confronting him: the tiny restaurant was packed with black men armed with rifles and shotguns.
“His mouth dropped a foot,” remembered Miller with some amusement. “He literally couldn’t talk for several minutes. He just stood there stunned.” — The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement, by Lance Hill, 2004, p. 98
Sass left to go arrange for protection to get Yates to a hospital but Sass . . . left without making any promises, saying only that he would speak with the state police. The black guards waited a few hours for him to arrange protection, but when the agent failed to return they decided to move the CORE men to the home of Bob and Jackie Hicks. They concealed them in the back seat of a car and transported them in an armed convoy to the Hicks’ house. When they arrived, Yates and Miller were greeted by a second defense force, scattered in trees, behind bushes and inside the house.
It was imperative to get Yates to a hospital so his injuries could be treated, but the local hospital was out of the question. By 10:30 PM CORE’s regional office had arranged for a state police escort for Yates and Miller. Four patrol cars soon arrived at the Hicks’ home. The ranking patrolman walked to the door. “He came in, took about four steps into the room, and saw all these guys with guns and his mouth fell open and he was rooted to the spot,” said Miller. “He was just dumbfounded.”
The armed guards relished the moment. — Ibid., pp. 98-99.
By then, Bobby Williams had handed off his Garand and bandoleer to another volunteer, caught a ride to his house, and hugged his wife again before rushing off to the Crown-Zellerbach plant. He still had a shift to work, and he did it in the same dirty clothes he’d worn for two days.
Three days later, Lucy Williams presented Bobby with his third child, a boy. They named him Robert E. Williams, Jr.
In the fullness of time, he would become the first black Attorney General of the state of Alabama.
But that is another story.
(Author’s afterward: The chapter you have just read is properly described as “faction.” There really was a “skirmish” at Andrey’s Cafe on 3 February 1965. The events proceeded just as described. If I have taken some liberties with the names and precise actions of the men who would later form the Deacon for Defense and Justice chapter of Bogalusa, Louisiana, I have, like Alan Eckhart in his “Wilderness” series of novels, merely given a best guess at dialogue to situations that are otherwise well-documented.
At this remove, we do not know exactly the names of those men first to the Cafe. Many more have claimed to be than could have fit in the tiny building. I have taken the liberty of inserting my fictional character Bobby Williams into this historical moment. Miller later reported that the men “moved with military precision.”
Bobby Williams is not such an outlandish guess from Miller’s account. I would heartily recommend that anyone seeking the facts of the incident, or of the remarkable history of the Deacons themselves, should consult Lance Hill’s history. It is an incredible story, and one that provides lessons even for today. — MBV)