In Bogalusa, the Deacons fought violence with violence
This is the second in a four-part series.
BOGALUSA, La. — Fiery red dust filled the air as Henry Austan, a 21-year-old insurance bill collector for an African-American agency, sped down a Washington Parish dirt road during the early spring of 1965.
After he finished his rounds and the sun began to set, he headed east outside Franklinton, the parish seat, en route to Bogalusa. Glancing at the rear-view mirror, Austan realized a group of white men was tailing him.
His car had been shot at before, leaving holes in the driver’s door.
“A couple of times they almost caught me, and I stopped thinking of it as a joke,” Austan said. “These people seriously wanted to kill me."
Tired of being harassed by Klansmen, Austan set a trap the next night.
Following his usual route, he crossed a wooden bridge, turned down a dirt road and pulled into a pasture behind a line of trees. There, he positioned himself out of sight under the bridge.
After turning off his headlights, he took out a sawed-off double-barrel shotgun, shells loaded with glass and cardboard, and waited for his pursuers to reach him. When their lights approached, Austan opened fire, surprising the driver. The vehicle swerved, missed the bridge and ran into the water, clearing an escape path for Austan.
The next day, Austan went to see Charles Sims, the local head of the Deacons for Defense and Justice, an armed black self-defense group in Louisiana.
“I told him, ‘I can’t collect insurance no more. They’re out to kill me,’” Austan, now 76, recalled in a recent interview. “'I’m going to join the Deacons.’”
Austan became one of the youngest members of the group. In the months ahead, he would do something no other Deacon ever did — shoot a white man in self-defense and survive.
Difference between CORE and the Deacons
Before Austan began his journey as a Deacon, the second unit of the self-defense group was formed during a meeting in Bogalusa on the evening of Feb. 21, 1965. There, Ernest "Chilly Willy" Thomas, the vice president of the Deacons’ first chapter in Jonesboro, outlined the goals of this new organization that focused on protecting black communities from marauding Klansmen and defending Civil Rights workers, white or black, specifically members of the Congress for Racial Equality, or CORE.
There was a major difference between CORE and the Deacons: The Deacons were armed and prepared to meet violence with violence if provoked, while CORE followed the non-violent approach of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Thomas was one of the founders of the Deacons, who patrolled Jonesboro at night and during Civil Rights marches and community events. FBI files from that time obtained by the LSU Manship School Cold Case Project show that the Deacons communicated by radio and walkie-talkies as they sought to instill the same fear in Klansmen that they had long felt.
At that first meeting in Bogalusa, sources told the FBI, “The general tenor of Thomas’ talk was that Negroes should arm themselves, not only for defensive purposes, but that they should have roving patrols so that if a Negro was being arrested by a police officer, other Negroes could come to the aid of the arrested person. Thomas said that if the Ku Klux Klan and white people generally wanted violence, they ‘intended to combat violence with violence.’”
Austan quit his insurance job and volunteered with the Deacons full-time. His role was defined day by day, with demonstrations occurring almost daily in Bogalusa. President Lyndon B. Johnson pushed Congress for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to end segregation. However, in Southern rural areas like Bogalusa, those empowered to enforce the law simply would not. It was left to the Deacons to challenge segregation in the workplace and around town.
Other Deacons, like Fletcher Anderson, who worked at the box factory within the Crown Zellerbach paper mill, continued with their day jobs to challenge segregation laws within the workplace.
The paper mill was the largest employer in Bogalusa and was infected with racism, with scores of Klansmen working there. Before he died this April, Anderson recalled the challenges he and other black employees faced daily when every aspect of the workplace was segregated, including the bathrooms, water fountains and pay lines. Black employees were barred from holding managerial positions at the mill.
Murder of a black deputy
In early June 1965, racial tensions boiled over when Washington Parish’s first black deputies were attacked while on duty in the small town of Varnado six miles north of Bogalusa. The Klan was outraged that the white sheriff, Dorman Crowe, appointed two black officers.
Klansmen opened fire from the bed of a black pickup truck while passing the deputies in their patrol car. Deputy Sheriff Oneal Moore, who was driving, was shot in the head and killed instantly. The patrol car veered off the road and crashed into a tree. His partner, Creed Rogers, was hit by a rifle shot to his left shoulder and blinded in the right eye when his head smashed into the windshield.
An hour later, the driver of the pickup, Klansman Ernest Rayford McElveen of Bogalusa, was apprehended by police in Mississippi. Sheriff Crowe charged him with the murder, but due a lack of evidence, McElveen was never convicted. The FBI closed its investigation into the other Klansmen in 2016 after identifying two dozen persons of interest through the years.
Austan said he and Moore were good friends. On Fridays, his insurance sales route took him by Moore’s house. They had visited during his lunch breaks and watched television together.
John McKeithen was in his first term as governor. He came out of the Caldwell Parish hills as a segregationist candidate, but as governor, he turned moderate. The murder in Bogalusa — and the potential for it to erupt into a racial powder keg — was the biggest problem he faced.
Two days before the deputies were shot, he had secretly met with Klansmen in an attempt to get them off the streets, telling reporters that he met with “certain white people” to try to prevent the kind of violence that had now happened.
'Spread eagle' in Bogalusa
On July 8, the black community took to the Bogalusa streets to protest Moore’s murder. During the march, an onlooker threw a rock, striking Hattie May Hill, a 16-year-old black girl, in the back of the head. A mob of white men then blocked Hill’s path to an ambulance.
Henry Austan was nearby, riding shotgun in black activist A.Z. Young’s 1964 Cadillac to protect him and help provide an escape if needed. Observing a nurse struggling to help Hill about 50 feet ahead, Austan said, he told Deacon Milton Johnson, the driver of Young’s car, to move forward so that Hill and the nurse could get into the car. Johnson then got out of the two-door car to help the nurse get Hill into the back seat. The mob swarmed Johnson, trapping him against the side of the vehicle, Austan recalled.
Austan quickly exited the vehicle and fired a warning shot into the air with his girlfriend's pistol to try to help Johnson escape.
“I thought, you know, (police) hear gunfire, now it seems really dumb, but back then I thought if they hear gunfire, they’d pay some attention,” Austan said. “Well, they turned their back, because they assumed, as usual, the white people had the guns. They were wrong that time.”
The warning shot did not deter the mob, and by then, according to newspaper accounts, a white man identified as 26-year-old Alton Crowe of Pearl River began pounding Johnson in his face with his fists. Austan fired a second time, this time with the bullet landing in the chest of Crowe, the married father of five children, who, Austan thought, was trying to enter the vehicle.
Police raced over and quickly barked orders Austan had heard before: “Spread eagle!” Austan and Johnson complied as Austan placed the gun on the top of the car. Crowe, though seriously injured, would recover from his wound.
Both Austan and Johnson were charged with aggravated battery. They were transferred to jails in Covington and then New Orleans because authorities feared that the Klan would try to break into the Bogalusa jail and hang them.
‘A lot different now’
Sitting in his red brick home in Avondale outside New Orleans, Austan said recently that he was not sure back then what had happened to Crowe, the man he shot.
“I was thinking, ‘They're going to electrocute my ass for shooting this white man,’” Austan said.
Sitting in a jail cell alone, Austan watched as the 5 o'clock news came on the television.
“I remember Alton Crowe saying how much he loved colored people as he was being interviewed in the hospital,” Austan said.
During a telephone interview last fall, Crowe, no relation to the sheriff, said he has no hard feelings toward Austan. He said he believed he was doing what was right at the time and figured Austan felt the same way.
"We are in a different day and time now than we were back then, and I don't think the same way I thought back then, so things are a lot different now,” Crowe said.
He then politely ended the call.
Austan was never prosecuted, presumably because prosecutors viewed him as defending himself. Without having a weapon for self-defense, Deacon Henry Austan and the others in that car could easily have been killed by the mob. The incident exemplified why the Deacons were needed and why they were armed.
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‘A standoff between us and them’
The day Austan shot Crowe was a turning point for Bogalusa, a town that attracted national attention for its violence.
“Once they realized that we were serious about shooting, it became basically a standoff between us and them,” he said.
“It was not like the old days where you could just drive in the neighborhood and everybody start hiding from you and you drag whoever you want out,” he said. “It was not like anymore, and they realized that.”
He added: “When there’s some opposition, it’s not any fun anymore.”
Austan credits the success of the Bogalusa Deacons to its leader, Charles Sims. He said Sims was the only man in town who would take on the job.
United Press International described Sims as a goateed 42-year-old whose police record included 21 entries back to 1956. UPI reported that in Bogalusa carrying a blackjack club “is roughly equivalent to wearing a wristwatch.”
Once when Sims and other Deacons were guarding CORE against a possible Klan attack, Sims approached Police Chief Claxton Knight, whose sympathetic view of the Klan is well documented in the FBI documents.
“You better stop ‘em, ‘cause if you don’t, we are going to kill them all,” Sims told the chief. There was no more trouble, and according to the FBI documents, Sims later said, “That night, a brand-new Negro was born.”
Top officials of the FBI and the Justice Department traveled down from Washington to witness some of the violence in Bogalusa. The Justice Department also filed lawsuits seeking to protect blacks testing the new civil rights laws and to halt Klan intimidation, and federal judges supported the effort.
In late 1965, Robert “Bob” Hicks, a founder of the Bogalusa Deacons chapter and its original vice president, turned to the court system for help in the workplace, opening job opportunities and promotions that had been unobtainable for African-Americans.
The Deacons’ efforts helped lead to an enforcement of new civil rights laws that ultimately resulted in blacks registering to vote in record numbers, gaining power in the political arena and serving routinely in law enforcement in rural Louisiana.
“We were effective. Not heroic, effective,” Austan said, thinking back on his time with the Deacons. “That’s what we were. We came into existence when the situation demanded it. We went out of existence when we were no longer needed.”
Bogalusa Deacons included Charles Sims, President; Royan Burris, Vice-President; Joseph White, secretary; Andrew Smith, Luke Varnado , Milton Johnson, Elmer Barner, aka Duppie, Sam Barnes, Bill Crawford, Mizell Butler O.J. Nelson (aka Candy), Lemuel Brown, Otha Peters, Theodore Newman, Charles Weary, Joshua Mundy (Varnado), Harold Ray Mingo (Varnado), Henry Austan, Fletcher Anderson, Robert “Bob” Hicks, Alcie Taylor, Joe Satin, and Reese Perkins.
Foster Willie contributed reporting for this story.