By JONATHAN TILOVE
February 26, 2006
c.2006 Newhouse News Service
NEW ORLEANS _ It is the end of February. Another Black History Month is drawing to a close. And it’s a good bet that few if any students were assigned to write a paper on Henry Austan.
In the avalanche of scholarship on the civil rights era, Austan _ now 62 and living quietly in the Carrollton section of a once-black city he fears will never be the same _ rates barely a footnote.
“I don’t think he’s ever mentioned, anywhere, even though it was a turning point,” says Lance Hill, Tulane University historian and director of its Southern Institute for Education and Research.
The turning point in question arrived on July 8, 1965, in Bogalusa, a rough-hewn paper mill town in the heart of Ku Klux Klan country 50 miles north of here. A month after the murder of the parish’s first black sheriff’s deputy, amid rising tension, marchers confronted white violence that had already left a black girl injured when Austan, a member of an armed civil rights group known as the Deacons for Defense and Justice, stopped the mob by firing a .38 caliber bullet into the chest of a man named Alton Crowe.
Crowe lived to tell about it. Remarkably, so did Austan, who after his arrest was never brought to trial.
More remarkably still, the shooting did not spark a bloodbath of reprisal. Instead, it led the federal government to launch what Hill, in his 2004 book “The Deacons for Defense and Justice: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement,” describes as a “lethal attack on white resistance in Bogalusa,” crippling the Klan and forcing local police for the first time to defend the rights of blacks.
This and other victories by the Deacons are largely lost in what Hill calls the prevailing “myth” that segregation was vanquished by nonviolence alone, that the path to progress lay in the shedding of innocent black blood so as to provoke Northern outrage and federal intervention. But Austan demonstrated that shedding a little white blood could sometimes do the trick more swiftly, more surely and, for black men long denied their manhood, to far more exhilarating effect.
“It is easy to see how an oppressed community would rally around this noble belligerence,” Roy Reed, a New York Times reporter, wrote about the Deacons in the paper’s Sunday Magazine in mid-August 1965. The headline: “The Deacons, Too, Ride By Night.”
“They were my idea of a civil rights movement,” Austan says, sitting at an outdoor cafe and recalling with a fond smile what first drew him to the Deacons. “March quietly, less singing, more shooting.”
The Deacons were founded in 1964 in Jonesboro, La. By the summer of 1965, they were spreading elsewhere and grabbing attention _ Time, Newsweek, Ebony and Jet after Jet after Jet.
The Sunday after Crowe was shot, The New York Times had a page-one story about a federal judge ordering Bogalusa police to stop harassing black protesters and start protecting them. In The Week in Review section was a huge photo of Austan’s arrest. And for good measure, the Sunday Magazine featured an essay by Erskine Caldwell, author of “Tobacco Road,” about “the Deep South’s Other Venerable Tradition”_ the vicious violence visited upon black males by white males, beginning in boyhood.
By temperament, Austan was well-suited for his role in history.
Born in New Orleans, he was raised in Baton Rouge, where as a boy he threw bricks at the white men prowling the black neighborhood for prostitutes. He came to Bogalusa in 1964 with a job selling insurance. He had already been in the Air Force and served two years in Leavenworth for slashing a fellow serviceman who called him a “nigger.”
“I’m not bragging about it,” Austan says. “I was way too quick-tempered in those days.”
Almost as soon as he arrived in Bogalusa, dressed in his nice suits, the Klan was gunning for him. When a bullet whizzed through his car as he was driving, tattering his tie, he knew they were serious. The next time they gave chase, he was ready, pulling into a pasture, dimming his lights and opening fire with a double-barreled shotgun and a .38.
Then he joined the Deacons.
“I went to talk with Charles Sims, who was the head of the Deacons,” Austan remembers, “and he said, `You’re the (one) that shot them white folks last night, aren’t you?’ I said, `Maybe, I don’t know for sure.”’
When the shot he fired at Crowe rang out, he says,“the line of police all turned their backs because they just assumed that the white people had the guns and they didn’t want to be a witness.”
“I really felt sorry for (Crowe) after I shot him because he had this incredulous look on his face,” he says. “When they first locked me up in a cell in Bogalusa I thought, well, Angola, warm up the electric chair. Here I come.”
Instead, he was spirited off to the parish prison in New Orleans, where Louis Lomax, a black journalist with a TV show in Los Angeles, bailed him out in exchange for an interview.
“They never wanted to take me to trial,” Austan says. “I don’t know how much of a turning point it was. What it meant was that all over the South a lot of white people realized that there are some black men who will shoot you in broad daylight, and not to rob you either.
“With Watts exploding a few weeks later, it made a lot of people think, especially at the federal level, that they had to intercede at a greater level, or there was going to be hell to pay in this country.”
Austan would rather be remembered for his lecturing, organizing and writing in the years that followed. He would rather talk about the fate of New Orleans, where he returned to live in 1989 from Dayton, Ohio _ “getting old, too damn cold” _ and because he missed the “flavor.”
Post-Katrina, much of that flavor is gone with the wind. “I don’t think we’ll ever be able to recover New Orleans as we knew it,” he says. “We don’t have the leadership. The Civil Rights Movement had good leadership _ King, Joseph Lowery, Malcolm X.”
And, Hill would add, the Deacons, who he believes offer black New Orleanians seeking to reclaim their city a useful model of a disciplined, militant, homegrown movement.
“It’s not about armed self-defense,” Hill says. “It’s about the power of self-organization, of making up your minds you are no longer going to depend on the federal government, you’re not going to worry about whether people like you or think you are deserving, but what you are going to do to demand what is rightly yours and make life difficult for people until they make concessions.”