The new fight: Securing civil rights fighters ‘Deacons’ in history

Barbara Hicks-Collins stands in front of her father's historic house, which she would like to...
Barbara Hicks-Collins stands in front of her father's historic house, which she would like to turn into a museum. (Alyssa Berry/LSU Manship School News Service)(Alyssa Berry/LSU Manship School News Service)
Updated: Apr. 25, 2019 at 9:36 AM CDT
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BOGULASA, LA (LSU Manship School News Sevice) - “That’s my daddy,” Barbara Hicks-Collins, now 72, said as her hand gingerly swept across the image on the Louisiana Historical Site landmark.

Her father, Robert “Bob” Hicks, was an integral part of the Deacons for Defense and Justice, a black group that combatted the Ku Klux Klan in parts of Louisiana and Mississippi in the 1960s.

Barbara Hicks-Collins recognizes the plot of land where she once lived as both a home and a headquarters, and she has been seeking grants and holding fundraisers since her father died in 2010 to try to turn it into a museum.

“I look at it two ways,” Hicks-Collins said. “One is the family house, ‘cause that's where I grew up and all my siblings and parents, and so we have some very good feelings about this house. And then on the other hand is civil rights. And it dictated so much pain and suffering as we went through the civil rights movement.”

Her father’s work as a Deacon gives her inside knowledge of a group that few people know about. Her home being the headquarters for Deacons’ meetings led to both federal and state landmark designations. And turning it into a museum will provide the most important piece to her—the memory of what happened from which others can learn.

The Deacons believed that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s concept for nonviolent resistance only worked in bigger cities. But in smaller places like Bogalusa, more drastic measures were needed to keep the Klan at bay. So the Deacons armed themselves to protect their families and their neighbors, though they maintained a crucial rule --don’t shoot unless you’ve been shot at.

In the summer of 1965, Bogalusa was on the brink of becoming a war zone between the Klan and the Deacons. Then-Gov. John J. McKeithen sent in 150 state troopers to join 72 others already there in case of mass conflict. No battle broke out, and there have been no documented deaths because of the Deacons’ activism.

(Video Courtesy: Caroline Fenton and Payton Ibos/LSU Manship School News Service)

FBI documents just released to the LSU Manship School’s Cold Case Project show how the Deacons reached out nationally to raise money and obtain weapons. The Deacons started out in Jonesboro, La., and the FBI records show that a meeting was held there in October 1965\ to discuss the possibility of the Deacons joining with two national groups, the Revolutionary Action Movement and Organization for Black Power. But after discussing how the money might be split among the groups, they decided to remain separate.

Ernest Thomas, one of the original Deacons in Jonesboro, traveled across the country to raise money for the group. According to the FBI files, Thomas was present at rallies in San Francisco in Berkeley, California. Other rallies involving the Deacons or the two national groups took place in Austin, San Antonio, Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles and New York City. These events sometimes included entertainers, with the records indicating that Bill Cosby had to back out of a fundraiser in California at the last minute.

The records show that when whites wanted to get involved in the fight against the KKK, they were sometime suspected to be spies. Whites were forced to leave a meeting in 1965 at the YMCA in Roxbury, Massachusetts, 30 minutes outside Boston.

The FBI files also include a Los Angeles Times article in which Thomas was quoted as saying that the Deacons had contacts in Chicago and Houston for .30 caliber and .50 caliber automatic weapons.

The group’s appeals would not have been possible without the foundation built in the white clapboard home of Bob Hicks, which he shared with his wife Valeria and their children Charles, Barbara, Robert L., Gregory and Valeria A. Hicks.

The residency list reached far beyond that with other Deacons and both white and black people the Deacons were protecting often staying at the Hicks house.

Over 50 years after the Deacons were prominent, no one knows or will share how many Deacons there were. Many Deacons have died, including Reese Perkins of Bogalusa, who just died less than 24 hours after the Hicks-Collins’ interview. And when a group is so secretive, Hicks-Collins’ task to get the word out is a tall order.

“Pick up one of the Louisiana history books and you can see, no, they don't, they don't teach that,” Hicks-Collins said.

When a group of high school students volunteered to work on the house on Martin Luther King Day, one girl embodied, for Hicks-Collins, why the museum needs to be created. “I asked her, I said, ‘how many museums have you gone to?’ She's a senior, and she’s never been to a museum.”

“Then I just hugged her and said, ‘Oh, baby, you're the one I'm working for,” Hicks-Collins said. “We are changing that with this museum.”

Even though racial polarization is a topic of discussion again today, it can be hard for young people to understand how difficult life was for blacks in the 1960s. Bogalusa is a poor town with a paper mill feeding the jobs and much of the local income, and the smell of the chemicals from the mill overwhelms everything else.

“There was a point where I thought, ‘My, isn't it so much better than it was during the times when I had to go through the back door?” Hicks-Collins said. “Times where I couldn't go in stores and try on shoes?’ My mom had to make a sketch of my feet in order to get shoes. So now is that better? Sure. I can go, I almost can go everywhere,” she said.

“So if you look at it in that regard, yes, I can't see how anybody would say that the relationships are not better because they were,” she said. “The fact that a black man can walk down the street and hold his head up and not look down, can't look at a white man in his eyes, that's the change. The fact that America has had their first African-American president, that is a change. The fact that we can vote, whether all of us vote or not, we have that right to vote. So, of course, it has changed.”

But, she added, laws do not change the hearts of all men. “And if it did, we would not have had, you know, ‘hands up,’ you know, ‘don't shoot,’ ‘I can't breathe,’” she said, referring to incidents of police violence against African-Americans. “We wouldn't have had to have those kinds of movements that's going on, black lives matter, and all of that.”

Hicks-Collins has created the Robert “Bob” Hicks Foundation and held “fundraisers and fundraisers after fundraisers, just to get bare minimum done in the house.” Volunteers from the community have helped gut the house on Martin Luther King Day and on Robert “Bob” Hicks Day, February 20, as designated by the city of Bogalusa and Washington Parish.

The foundation has obtained small matching grants from the Louisiana Division of Historic Preservation and is trying to establish itself enough to get larger amounts from the National Park Service.

According to the museum website, $500,000 is needed fully renovate the house, install security systems and make it accessible for visitors with disabilities.

Despite the landmark sign, the house has been vandalized several times, adding more items to Hicks-Collins’s to-do list.

She said she tries to stop by daily to talk to neighbors and young people walking by. “It's kind of sad, but, no, they have no idea what that sign means,” she said. “But that's okay. It means I got a lot of work to go do.”

Payton Ibos and Alyssa Berry contributed to this report.

Copyright WVUE/LSU Manship School News Service 2019. All rights reserved.