Paul Farmer has brought his pistol. The president of the Washington Parish White Citizens Council was standing in the middle of the street along with several other members of the council and the Ku Klux Klan. It was the autumn of 1966 in the small paper mill town of Bogalusa, Louisiana.
Royan Burris, a black barber and civil rights leader, knew why the Klansmen were there. They were there waiting for the doors to open at Bogalusa Junior High. The school had recently been integrated, and white students had been harassing and brutalizing black students with impunity. “They were just stepping on them, and spitting on them and hitting them,” recalled Burris, and the black students “wasn’t doing anything back.” In the past Burris had counseled the black students to remain nonviolent. Now he advised a new approach. “I said, anybody hit you, you hit back. Anybody step on your feet, step back. Anybody spit on you, spit back.”
The young black students heeded Burris’s advice. Fights between black and white students erupted at the school throughout the day. Now Paul Farmer and his band of Klansmen had arrived with guns, prepared to intervene. Their presence was no idle threat; whites had murdered two black men in the mill town in the past two years, including a sheriff’s deputy.
But Farmer had a problem. Standing in the street only a few feet from the Klan, was a line of grim, unyielding black men. They were members of the Deacons for Defense and Justice, a black self-defense organization that had already engaged the Klan in several shooting skirmishes. The two groups faced off: The Klansmen on one side and the Deacons on the other.