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Typical stories of civil rights demonstrations by African Americans and civil rights workers in the south tell accounts of passive resistance and nonviolent protest. They tell accounts of African Americans being neglected and ignored in restaurants, verbally abused for being out of “their neighborhoods”, and beaten and arrested for speaking up or acting out against such grave injustices. They were further repressed by the fact that the police, prosecutors, judges, mayors, and even governors of southern areas not only turned a blind eye to newly enacted civil rights legislation but also actively participated in ensuring the continued suppression of African American acceptance. This complete segregation from society and lack of protection under the law naturally spawned groups of African Americans who decided that the only protection they were going to get was the protection they provided for themselves. They began to arm themselves, forming small bands that set out to protect civil rights demonstrators and retaliate against racist acts. One such group was the Deacons for Defense and Justice in Louisiana. In his book Crossing Border Street Peter Jan Honigsberg tells of his experiences with the Deacons while working as a civil rights worker in Louisiana. Becoming deeply immersed into African American culture Honigsberg learns what it means to be black and living in the south during the civil rights movement. Furthermore he reveals some of the motivations of white individuals who participated in the movement.
One of the early scenes in the book that breaks the mold of passive resistance is of Honigsberg’s first trip into Bogalusa. He describes pulling over to the side of the road and seeing two cars, each of which was occupied by several black men with “their rifles pointed straight ahead” (Border Street, p. 24). This was not a unique welcome however, as it was a regular occurrence. Each and every time Honigsberg made the trip into Bogalusa he was escorted by at least one car with armed occupants. The car was occupied by members of the Deacons for Defense and Justice. Their duty was to defend the black community. They were formed in response to “intimidation, harassment, and beatings of black demonstrators and picketers” (Border Street, p. 27). Given that not much was done to curb the violence on the part of the local law enforcement a group like the Deacons was the only obvious force able to maintain some level of protection.
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The armed escorts are the first sign of Honigsberg’s immersion into the African American culture. Honigsberg soon wants more, he quickly grows tired of just watching from the sidelines while Gayle, Bob, A.Z. and the others demonstrate and test integration laws. He soon gets his chance to join in when a small group of CORE workers makes a trip to the Acme Café, a local establishment that is known to be sympathetic to the Klan. Suprisingly, the blacks in the group are served, but as for Honigsberg and the other white members of the demonstration the waitress says “Under the Civil Rights Act, I have to serve you niggers, but I don’t have to serve you two who are even worse than niggers. You’re nigger lovers” (Border Street, p. 43).
The scene proves to be a pivotal moment for Honigsberg. He returns to Gayle’s house and they share the story with friends. They laugh as the recount the events, and Honigsberg really feels as if he belongs. Beyond finding a sense of belonging with Gayle and the CORE members he begins to feel at home working within the civil rights movement. He says “I relived that day at the Acme Café again and again, and I wanted more. I loved the action, the thrill…aware of the perils… but somehow I felt secure in knowing that the Deacons were nearby” (Border Street, p. 44). Honigsberg would go on to participate in several other demonstrations such as marches, more café integration tests, and a picnic on a recently integrated beach on Lake Pontchartrain.
The immersion into the culture continues as Honigsberg’s work shifts from the simple tasks at the LCDC office of interviewing CORE members who had been arrested, conducting research for cases, and collecting affidavits. He begins to attend other functions with Gayle and the CORE members such as the Bogalusa Voters League planning and strategy sessions at the local pool hall. Later he begins to patron the pool hall just for relaxation. They would converse about recent activities, the latest incidents, and anything that could generate a good conversation. Honigsberg also begins to take a liking to the music plated at the Cozy Corners pool hall. He describes the sounds of Cannonball Adderley, Bobby Moore, and Percy Sledge.
Certainly the armed guards and the retaliation acts of the Deacons call into question the so called passive resistance of the civil rights movement. The traditional narrative of passive resistance should not be completely disregarded however as the Deacons typically play defense. They aren’t attacking Klan members unless they are first attacked. They never initiate conflict, they simply make their presence known and refuse to accept the violence committed against them without a fight. It isn’t until later, when the Black Power movement begins to take hold that the traditional narrative is truly called into question.
It was during 1967 that the Black Power movement really began to take hold. Promoted by SNCC and CORE the Black Power movement sought to hasten the pace of the civil right movement. The message was clear; African Americans could do things themselves. They said that integration was not working and whites had no interest in equality. Honigsberg describes a speech given by Lincoln Lynch from CORE as quire militant. Lynch stated such things as “we are through clapping our hands and marching, from now on we must be ready to kill” (Border Street, p. 137). Honigsberg says that the speech had its impact. He could see the future collapsing on him. The civil rights movement in Bogalusa was moving way from one with a black-white partnership to one run exclusively by African Americans.
The final demonstration that Honigsberg takes part in is a rally at the Capital. He and a friend Michael Millemann were in attendance and listened to the speeches. The mood was not a positive one however as rants of black power and black pride were the central theme. He describes a scene in which they feared for their safety. He says it was if a “throng of black youths were signaling each other and moving into position around us”. They escaped harm that night when someone they knew from Bogalusa escorted them out. They knew at that point that their time in the civil rights movement was essentially over.
Honigsberg’s book also reveals the motivations of whites to participate in the civil rights movement. He describes characters such as Tyrell Collins who had a deep passion for social justice. Also there was Steve Wirtz, who thought he could change the world through political action. The movement also attracted a lot of Jewish Americans. Having been the subject of unsubstantiated persecution themselves many Jews felt compelled to assist with the movement. The documentary Freedom Summer tells of two Jewish students, Andrew Goodman and Michael Shwerner, who along with one black James Earl Chaney were murdered by local extremists.
Honigsberg’s book Crossing Border Street coupled with documentaries such as Freedom Summer provide great insight into the work behind the civil rights movement. They show the immense courage necessary to initiate change among a static southern culture. They reflect the development of the movement from one of peaceful demonstration in the early stages to one of a more militant tone towards the end. Most of all they reveal the emotion, passion, and motivation behind the action necessary to change a nation.
Honigsberg, Peter Jan. Crossing Border Street. Berkeley California: University of California
Freedom Summer. Dir. Marco Williams. 2006. JWR.