[Interview with Charles R. Sims, President, Bogalusa chapter, Deacons for Defense and Justice, conducted by William Price, reporter for the National Guardian newsweekly, on August 20, 1965, in Bogalusa, Louisiana. As reprinted from Black Protest: 350 Years of History, Documents, and Analyses, by Joanne Grant.]
See Confronting the Klan
in Bogalusa With Nonviolence & Self-Defense for background & more
See also Deacons for Defense and Justice for web links.
Price: Mr. Sims, why do you feel there is need for the Deacons in the civil rights movement and in Bogalusa?
Sims: First of all, the reason why we had to organize the Deacons in the city of Bogalusa was the Negro people and civil rights workers didn't have no adequate police protection.
Price: Can you tell us what difference it may have made in Bogalusa to have the Deacons here?
Sims: Well, when the white power structure found out that they had mens, Negro mens that had made up their minds to stand up for their people and to give no ground, would not tolerate with no more police brutality, it had a tendency to keep the night-riders out of the neighborhood.
Price: You say the Deacons were formed because you were not given adequate police protection, does this mean that you consider the role of the Deacons to be a sort of separate police organ in behalf of the civil rights movement?
Sims: Well, I wouldn't say policemen, I would say a defense guard unit. We're not authorized to carry weapons.
Price: You say you're not authorized to carry weapons?
Sims: No we're not.
Price: Can you tell me how the Deacons view the use of weapons?
Price: Do most Deacons, in their efforts to protect the civil rights movement, would they normally carry a gun or a pistol with them?
Sims: That's the only way you can protect anything, by having weapons for defense. If you carry weapons, you carry them at your own risk.
Price: Do the local authorities object to your carrying weapons?
Sims: Oh yeah, the local, the federal, the state, everybody object to us carrying weapons, they don't want us armed, but we had to arm ourselves because we got tired of the women, the children being harassed by the white night-riders.
Price: Have they done anything to try to get the weapons away from you?
Sims: Well, they threatened several times. The governor even said he was going to have all the weapons confiscated, all that the state troopers could find. But on the other hand, the governor forgot one thing-in an organization as large as the Deacons, we also have lawyers and we know about what the government can do. That would be unconstitutional for him just to walk up and start searching cars and taking people's stuff without cause.
Price: Has there been a court case to determine this?
Price: The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the right of the people to carry weapons, is that the way you feel about it, that the people have a right to carry weapons in their own self-defense?
Sims: I think a person should have the right to carry a weapon in self-defense, and I think the Louisiana state law says a man can carry a weapon in his car as long as it is not concealed. We found out in Bogalusa that that law meant for the white man, it didn't mean for the colored. Any time a colored man was caught with a weapon in his car, they jailed him for carrying a concealed weapon. So we carried them to court.
Price: It's your understanding then, that a person possessing a gun in his home, or carrying it in his car, that this is within your rights?
Sims: According to state law it is.
Price: When you confront a white man with a weapon as compared with confronting a white man without a weapon, could you tell us what the difference in the white man's reaction is; as to whether or not you are armed, or unarmed?
Sims: Well, I want to say when I confront a white man, I would be just as dangerous to the white man without a weapon as I would be with a weapon, if he didn't treat me right.
Price: But suppose he had a weapon, and you didn't?
Sims: Then he'd have the better hand.
Price: When the Deacons carry weapons, do they do this with any thought to use these in any way except in self-defense?
Sims: No man a member of the Deacons will attack anyone, he has to use his weapons in defense only.
Price: Have there been any examples of the actual use of weapons by the Deacons, have you ever had to use them?
Sims: I would rather not answer that.
Price: Can you tell me what difference it has made with the white community, the fact that there are the Deacons here in Bogalusa and that they are prepared to use arms even if they may not?
Sims: For one thing that made a difference, there were a lot of night-riders riding through the neighborhood; we stopped them. We put them out and gave them fair warning. A couple of incidents happened when people were fired on. So the white man right away found out that a brand new Negro was born. We definitely couldn't swim and we was as close to the river as we could get so there was but one way to go.
Price: So you think there has been a difference in the attitude of the white people towards the civil rights movement in Bogalusa because you have been here to protect it?
Sims: Yes, I do believe that. I believe that if the Deacons had been organized in 1964, the three civil rights workers that was murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi, might have been living today because we'd have been around to stop it.
Price: Do the Deacons have any code or any instructions or any policy about the use of arms, about when they will use them?
Sims: Yes, we have our by-laws that each man must study to make sure that he understands them and must abide by them before he can become a Deacon.
Price: Is there anything you can say about the pledge that a Deacon takes, or the oath?
Sims: He pledges his life for the defense of justice, that's one thing he do, for the defense of the Negro people, and the civil rights workers in this area. When I say this area, that doesn't necessarily mean Bogalusa, that's anywhere we're needed in this vicinity.
Price: You mean in this parish?
Sims: That's right, and if necessary, out of this parish.
Price: What has been the response to the existence of the Deacons from the civil rights movement, from the Congress of Racial Equality, other civil rights organizations or from unaffiliated whites that come in like we might come in?
Sims: They're most glad we have the Deacons organized. See, right now it's rather quiet. Two months ago a white civil rights worker or even a colored civil rights worker, he couldn't come into Bogalusa unless we brought him in. The whites would be on the road trying to stop cars. We've taken on the job of transportation in and out of Bogalusa, bringing people backwards and forwards, making sure that they get here safe.
Price: Is this to protect against truckloads of whites, night-riders and that sort of thing?
Sims: Anybody that tries to get next to the civil right workers, anybody.
Price: Can you tell me what kind of weapons are preferred, is it a shotgun or a rifle or a pistol?
Sims: A shotgun is for close range stuff. I don't intend to let a man get close enough to me to hit me with a shotgun.
Price: So you prefer a rifle?
Sims: The best that they make.
Price: Do you have any recommendations for white people traveling in the South?
Sims: Yes, be careful. And if you're a civil rights worker, don't let nobody know it.
Price: Would you recommend that white persons interested in or working in the civil rights movement carry their own arms or guns when they travel in the South?
Sims: I will not recommend anyone to carry guns. I don't think that's my job to recommend people to carry weapons. When you carry a weapon, you have to have a made up mind to use it. I am president of the Deacons and not a legal advisor to everyone who passes through Bogalusa.
Price: Can you tell us anything about how you would operate in any particular kind of an emergency situation. Would you get a call by phone, or do you have a two-way radio set up? Suppose something was happening to somebody in an outlying district, how are you likely to know about it and how are you likely to respond to it?
Sims: The old saying that I've heard is that bad news travels fast. We have telephones, naturally, word of mouth, and we have some powerful walkie-talkies. We can receive a lot of different calls on the walkie-talkies that we can't transmit, but we can receive them. And that's what bugs the white man today, why was we able to be in so many places so quick. We was intercepting their calls.
Price: You were intercepting the calls of the white people?
Sims: Sure, the Ku Klux Klan, sometimes the police calls, all depends.
Price: You mean they have their own radios and you listen in to them?
Price: Could you give any kind of example of a situation like this?
Sims: There are so many of them. I don't know which one to pick out.
Price: Could you pick one where you got, say, a call from out of town and you had to go out there real quick?
Sims: Yes, we had a doctor coming into Bogalusa and they dropped him off in Covington. We received a call that peoples down there were asking him a lot of questions and we had to get to Covington quick, and get him out of there. That's about 28 miles. So about 16-17 minutes after I received a call, I pulled up at the gas station. When I pulled up at the gas station well, I knew the doctor — and I had two carload of mens, maybe ten mens. And I walked up and picked up his bag and said "Let's go Doc."
Well two, three white boys started behind him. And I just turned around and said, "Partner, if you want to keep living you better go back, because if you come any closer to this car, I'm going to kill all three of you." I wasn't going to kill them; it was just a threat. So we had to bring Doc out and had to hurry up and get him out. So down the road we had two-three peoples tried to follow us, but we have some pretty fast automobiles. They're a little faster than the usual car.
Price: When you confronted the white people there at the service station, did you show a weapon at that point?
Sims: I didn't have to — know me. I showed my face. That was weapons enough. And they know wherever they see me, my gun and the Deacons are close.
Price: The mere showing of a weapon, does that sometimes take care of a situation?
Sims: The showing of a weapon stops many things. Everybody want to live and nobody want to die. But here in Bogalusa, I'm one of the few peoples who is really known as a Deacon and anybody that I associate with, they just take for granted they are Deacons. I show up then ten, twelve more mens show up, whether they Deacons or not, they branded, you know. That make the white man respect us even more, because nine out of ten he be right.
Price: There might be some people who feel that merely by your having weapons in your posses&ion and being willing to use them, that this might create violence rather than stopping it...
Sims: Well some peoples ought to take one other thing into consideration. I owned three or four weapons long before the civil rights movement. I went to jail, I think about three times for carrying concealed weapons ten years before the movement start. So, I mean, having a weapon's nothing new. What bugged the people was something else — when they found out what was the program of the Deacons. I do have a police record.
Price: Do you want to talk about it?
Sims: It's no secret. Every time I went to jail it was for carrying a weapon or battery. I've never been to jail for drunks, stealing or nothing like that. But I used to fight all the time and when they discovered I was president of the Deacons, they looked up my record and checked how many times I whipped white boys on the biggest street they have in the city and I wasn't afraid of the law or nobody else they start thinking twice. It's good that they did because I meant business. I had made up my mind.
Price: If you say that the white man was not bugged until the Deacons were created, was it the organization of a group like the Deacons that made the difference rather than, say, you as an individual ...
Sims: No, not me as an individual. See, the Southern white man is almost like Hitler in the South. He been dictating to the Negro people, "Boy, this," and "Uncle, that," and "Granma,' go here," and people's been jumpin'. So he gets up one morning and discovers that, "Boy," was a man, and that he can walk up and say something to "boy" and "boy" don't like what he say, he tell him to eat himself — you know? And then if he blow up, there's a good fight right there. So the man goes back home and sit down and try to figure out the Negro. Shortly after that we had several rallies. And I guess he received his answer, we told him a brand new Negro was born. The one he'd been pushin' around, he didn't exist anymore.
Price: Do you think people here in Bogalusa realize that now?
Sims: Oh, yes.
Price: Has it made a difference?
Sims: A great difference.
Price: Could you describe the difference?
Sims: First of all we don't have these people driving through this neighborhood throwing at people's houses, catching two or three fellows on the streets, jumping out their car, whipping them up 'cause these are Negroes and they are white. We don't be bothered because these paddies [whites] in the streets calling themselves collectors harassing the womens and going from door to door to see "how that one is." We don't have any of this. Because of the Deacons, we don't have any of this. We don't have much work to do now. But up until the middle of July we patrolled the streets 24 hours a day, and made sure we didn't have any of this. When we found this, we hadded 'em up and if they give us any resistance, we, you know, shook 'em up.
Price: What do you mean, "Shook 'em up?"
Sims: When you know how to shake a man up, you know. Teach him that you mean business.
Price: Where we come from, that might be called "roughing him up..."
Sims: Well, yes, a little Bogart, you know. Pop him up the side of his head, shake him up, take his weapon away from him and show him the way to get back to town.
Price: Has anyone ever been arrested for doing that?
Sims: No. One boy was arrested, he was accused of drawing a gun on a man, accused of it. It was two weapons against him and eight weapons for him. Now if a judge is trying you for something you done to me, even though you's guilty, if you have two mens in your defense and eight against you, who should the judge respect?
Price: I think you better answer that question.
Sims: The majority witnesses. And if he don't, we move it to a higher court until we find a court that respect the fact that eight people's word should be greater than two.
Price: Except for yourself, the names of the other Deacons are not known. ...
Sims: Only about four.
Price: Now outside of Bogalusa, when there is some news about a Negro carrying a gun or about some kind of violence, and people don't know who the Deacons are and who may not be Deacons, they may feel that this is the Deacons at work. Have there been instances like that where there has been violence and the Deacons were blamed for it?
Sims: Yes, a lot of cases. Any time a Negro and a white man have any kind of round up and the Negro decide he going to fight him back, he's a Deacon. We had one case here where a Negro and a white man had a round and a little shootin' was done. He was named a Deacon. Now I can truthfully say he was not a Deacon. But the papers, the government and everybody else say he was. So I laugh at the government to its face. I told them point blank; you do not know who Deacons is and quit gettin' on the air and telling peoples that people are Deacons just because they stood up to a white man.
Price: If no one knows who the Deacons are except you. ...
Sims: I didn't say except me, the secretary have to know — he keep the records.
Price: So the known Deacons are yourself and the secretary?
Sims: No, myself, the vice-president who is Roy N. Burris, weighs 116 pounds soaking wet but he's a man. Another man's name I will not give you because he's leaving. And Robert Hicks, he's public relations man for the Deacons.
Price: If the membership is not known, would you call it a secret society?
Sims: As far as the white man is concerned, yes.
Price: Could you say how many Deacons there are in Bogalusa and throughout the South?
Sims: No, but I'll tell you this, we have throughout the South at this time somewhere between 50 and 60 chapters.
Price: Roughly how many people in each chapter?
Sims: I won't tell you that.
Price: Could tell us what areas they cover?
Sims: Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas.
Sims: No. We have Georgia and North Carolina in mind. As a matter of fact I was supposed to go to North Carolina and organize the people there, and in Florida, but I don't have time right now to do it.
Price: Have you been making trips outside of Louisiana to see these other groups, to help them organize?
Sims: No, I send mens. And the headquarters in Jonesboro sends mens out.
Price: The headquarters is in Jonesboro, Louisiana?
Price: Is Jonesboro near Bogalusa?
Sims: No, it's about 300 miles from here, way up North in Louisiana.
Price: Near the Arkansas border?
Sims: Shouldn't be too far.
Price: Could you tell us what views you might have on the civil rights tactic of nonviolence?
Sims: The nonviolent act is a good act — providing the police mens do their job. But in the Southern states, not just Louisiana, but in the Southern states, the police have never done their job when the white and the Negro are involved — unless the Negro's getting the best of the white man.
Price: How do you think the movement could best be advanced or get its aims the quickest if it didn't use nonviolence?
Sims: I believe nonviolence is the only way. Negotiations are going to be the main point in this fight.
Price: Would it be correct to put it this way, that you feel nonviolence is the correct way to get political and economic things done. ...
Price: But that behind that, behind the nonviolence, the Deacons or organizations like the Deacons are necessary to protect the rights of this nonviolent movement?
Sims: That's right.
Price: Do you find a noticeable change, not necessarily in the police here, but generally in the white people in this town that comes because they know there are people ready to defend the civil rights movement? Are they taking on some second thoughts?
Sims: Sure — who wouldn't? If you'd been walking down the streets doing anything you want and all at once you find out that you can't go down that street like you used to, wouldn't you make a change?
Price: Mr. Sims, just one last question, how long do you think the Deacons will be needed in the civil rights movement?
Sims: First of all, this is a long fight. In 1965 there will be a great change made. But after this change is made, the biggest fight is to keep it. My son, his son might have to fight this fight and that's one reason why we won't be able to disband the Deacons for a long time. How long, Heaven only knows. But it will be a long time.