Robert Hicks; rights leader led armed group in La.; at 81
Someone had called to say the Ku Klux Klan was coming to bomb his house. It was the night of Feb. 1, 1965, in Bogalusa, La.
The Klan was furious that Robert Hicks, a black paper mill worker, was putting up two white civil rights workers in his home. It was just six months after three young civil rights workers had been killed in Philadelphia, Miss.
Mr. Hicks and his wife, Valeria, made some phone calls. They found neighbors to take in their children, and they reached out to friends for protection. Soon, armed black men materialized. Nothing happened.
Less than three weeks later, the leaders of a secretive, paramilitary organization of blacks called the Deacons for Defense and Justice visited Bogalusa. It had been formed in Jonesboro, La., in 1964 mainly to protect unarmed civil rights demonstrators from the Klan. After listening to the Deacons, Mr. Hicks took the lead in forming a Bogalusa chapter, recruiting many of the men who had gone to his house to protect his family and guests.
Mr. Hicks died of cancer at his home in Bogalusa on April 13 at age 81, his wife said. He was one of the last surviving Deacon leaders.
But his role in the civil rights movement went beyond armed defense in a corner of the Jim Crow South. He led daily protests month after month in Bogalusa — then a town of 23,000, of whom 9,000 were black — to demand rights guaranteed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And he filed suits that integrated schools and businesses, reformed hiring practices at the mill, and put the local police under a federal judge’s control.
It was his leadership role with the Deacons that drew widest note, however. The Deacons, who grew to have chapters in more than two dozen Southern communities, veered sharply from the nonviolence preached by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They carried guns, with the mission to protect those communities, citing the Second Amendment.
And they used them. A Bogalusa Deacon pulled a pistol in broad daylight during a protest march in 1965 and put two bullets into a white man who had attacked him with his fists. The man survived. A month earlier, the first black deputy sheriff in the county had been assassinated by whites.
When James Farmer, national director of the human rights group the Congress of Racial Equality, joined protests in Bogalusa, armed Deacons provided security.
King publicly denounced the Deacons’ “aggressive violence.’’ And Farmer, in an interview with Ebony magazine in 1965, said that some people likened the Deacons to the KKK. But Farmer also pointed out that the Deacons did not lynch people or burn down houses. In a 1965 interview with The New York Times Magazine, he spoke of CORE and the Deacons as “a partnership of brothers.’’
The Deacons’ turf was hardscrabble Southern towns where Klansmen and law officers aligned against civil rights campaigners. “The Klan did not like being shot at,’’ said Lance Hill, author of “The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement.’’
In July 1965, escalating hostilities between the Deacons and the Klan in Bogalusa provoked the federal government to use Reconstruction-era laws to order local police departments to protect civil rights workers. It was the first time the laws were used in the modern civil rights era, Hill said.
Adam Fairclough, in his book “Race and Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana, 1915-1972,’’ wrote that Bogalusa became “a major test of the federal government’s determination to put muscle into the Civil Rights Act in the teeth of violent resistance from recalcitrant whites.’’
Mr. Hicks was repeatedly jailed for protesting. He watched as his 15-year-old son was bitten by a police dog. The Klan displayed a coffin with his name on it beside a burning cross. He persisted, his wife said, for one reason: “It was something that needed to be done.’’
Robert Hicks was born in Mississippi. His father, Quitman, drove oxen to harvest trees for the paper mill. He played football on a state championship high school team and later for the semiprofessional Bogalusa Bushmen.
He was known for his generosity: At the Baptist congregation where he was a deacon, he bought new suits for poor members. As the first black supervisor at the mill, he helped a young man amass enough overtime to buy the big car he dreamed of. Children all over town called him Dad, his son Charles said.
A leader in the local NAACP and his segregated union, Mr. Hicks was the logical choice to head the Bogalusa Civic and Voters League when it was formed to lead the local civil rights effort. He was first president, then vice president of the Deacons in Bogalusa.
Besides Valeria Hicks, his wife of 62 years, and his son Charles, Mr. Hicks is survived by three other sons, Gregory, Robert Lawrence, and Darryl; his daughter, Barbara Hicks Collins; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
By 1968, the Deacons had pretty much vanished. In time they were “hardly a footnote in most books on the civil rights movement,’’ Hill said. He attributed this to a “mythology’’ that the movement was always nonviolent.
Valeria Hicks said she was glad it was not.
“I became very proud of black men,’’ she said. “They didn’t bow down and scratch their heads. They stood up like men.’’