23. The Civil Rights Movement Emerged in an Environment of Oppressive Terror by the Klan and Klan-Friendly Authorities
The Civil War freed millions of slaves, and for years after the surrender at Appomattox, blacks in much of the former Confederacy voted, ran for office, and were elected. However, the end of Reconstruction ushered in a concerted disenfranchisement campaign that relied mainly on discriminatory voter registration practices and poll taxes. By the 1890s, blacks were essentially eliminated from politics in the South, and were subjected to the full panoply of oppressive Jim Crow laws. Disenfranchisement was backed by terror and violence perpetrated by white vigilantes, and reinforced by hostile white police.
Blacks were seen as “troublemakers” if they tried to assert their rights, or worse if they tried to organize other blacks to assert their rights. They were often beaten, mutilated, imprisoned, or lynched. It was against that backdrop that the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s emerged and operated. By then, violent white supremacists such as those of the Ku Klux Klan were accustomed to preying on blacks with impunity. Close cooperation between the Klan and law enforcement was pervasive and open. Southern cops denied civil rights activists police protection, and sometimes cooperated with the KKK in murdering them. In 1964, for example, police in Philadelphia, Mississippi, detained three civil rights volunteers, then coordinated with the Klan to lynch them upon their release from jail.
22. The Heroic Armed Black Volunteers Who Took on the Ku Klux Klan
In the 1950s and well into the 1960s, friendly links between the KKK and many Southern police departments gave Klansmen nearly free rein to terrorize and murder civil rights workers. The widespread violence prompted many activists to arm themselves for self-protection. Dr. Martin Luther King’s home had so many firearms, that visitors compared it to an arsenal. Police having demonstrated clearly that black lives did not matter, armed black groups emerged for self-defense. Most notable among those pioneers were the Deacons for Defense and Justice.
The Freedom Summer in 1964 saw intensive efforts by volunteers to register black voters in the South. One organization, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) set up a Freedom House as a base for its volunteers in Jonesboro, Louisiana. In response, local Klansmen went on a terror spree. They harassed and attacked volunteers and blacks, and burned five black churches, a Baptist center, and a Masonic lodge. So some black WWII and Korean War veterans founded a self-defense group to protect civil rights workers, their families, and the black community in general.
The black armed volunteers were led by Earnest “Chilly Willy” Thomas, and Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick, a Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) activist and an ordained minister. Most members were practicing Christians, who sought to serve their community in a Christian manner. Because of that religiosity, the group came to be known as the Deacons for Defense and Justice. The Deacons had strict membership requirements. They accepted only male citizens, 21 or older, preferably married, and with prior military experience. They demanded discipline in the face of provocation, a commitment to act only in self-defense, and turned away those with a reputation for “hotheadedness”.
Per their charter, the goal was “the defense of civil rights, property rights, and personal rights … by any and all honorable and legal means to the end that justice may be obtained“. Deacons had to pledge their lives to the defense of justice, civil rights activists, and the people of their community. Their first show of force occurred when protests commenced in Jonesboro, Louisiana, against the segregation of public swimming pools and the public library. The KKK and local police organized a caravan to intimidate the protesters and the black community. Twenty armed Deacons showed up to stare down the caravan. Confronted with the prospect of lethal opposition, the caravan hastily withdrew.
The heroic Deacons’ stand in Jonesboro and its success in cowing the KKK led to the organization’s rapid expansion. Soon, twenty-one formal chapters, and over forty affiliates, were established in other cities. Setting up communications networks using walkie-talkies and CB radios, they conducted armed patrols of black neighborhoods to ward off white vigilantes. Their reputation grew further in early 1965, when hostile police were called on black students, peacefully picketed Jonesboro’s high school over its racist practices – they were barred from taking some classes.
The cops summoned fire trucks and prepared to use fire hoses against the black kids when armed Deacons arrived on the scene and proceeded to load shotguns within sight of the police. The police ordered the fire trucks to withdraw. It was the first time in the twentieth century that armed black people had successfully used weapons to protect a lawful protest from a police attack. Louisiana’s governor was forced to intervene, and he compelled Jonesboro’s authorities to negotiate a compromise with the protesters. It was the first capitulation to the Civil Rights movements by a Deep South governor.
One of the Deacons’ most heroic stands took place in Bogalusa, Louisiana, where the armed black volunteers took on the Klan head-on. In one confrontation, a Klansman was killed, and another was injured. On another occasion, a Klansman drove a caravan through a black neighborhood, shouting racial epithets and firing into some homes at random. As the Klansmen discovered, to their shock, times had changed. Unlike prior occasions when they got to act in a consequence-free environment, this time the KKK was met with a fusillade of return fire. The Klansmen peeled rubber as they fled.
In another instance, white high school students had routinely beat-up black classmates, until the black kids fought back. Armed Klansmen showed up at the school, only to be countered by armed Deacons. The Klansmen withdrew. The authorities eventually gave in, and abandoned the town’s segregationist practices. Bogalusa even hired its first black sheriff’s deputy, but the Klan responded by murdering him just a few days after his appointment. The mounting tensions eventually forced a federal intervention, and the US government used a Reconstruction-era law to force the local police to protect civil rights workers.
18. These Heroic Armed Volunteers Were Game Changers
The Deacons for Defense and Justice were game-changers. Wherever the armed black volunteers established themselves, white racists lost their ability to openly terrorize blacks. The group’s branches were effective in affording civil rights workers a degree of security to go about their business of registering blacks to vote. Even those committed to nonviolence appreciated the protection. As one CORE activist put it: “CORE is nonviolent, but we have no right to tell Negroes … that they do not have the right to defend their homes“.
The Deacons were so successful that they put themselves out of business. By the late 1960s, the environment had changed so much that the organized armed black volunteers were no longer necessary. Between long overdue prosecutions of violent Klansmen, gains secured by the Civil Rights movement, and the spirit of armed self-defense fostered by the Deacons, white racists’ ability to openly attack blacks with impunity vanished. By 1968, the heroic Deacons were in decline, and by the end of the decade, the organization had all but exited the scene.
17. The Heroic Antifascist Who Smiled in the Face of Death
Heroic Resistance fighter Georges Blind (1904 – 1944) of Belfort, France, became famous when a photo surfaced of him smiling at a German firing squad. Before WWII, Blind was a fireman and ambulance driver. After the Germans conquered France, he decided to do his part to take on the Nazis. Blind took his first steps towards joining the antifascist fight just a few months into the occupation, when he and others sheltered a statue of Edith Cavell, a WWI heroine executed by the Germans.
Blind eventually became a resistance courier. He used his ambulance to transport weapons, information, clandestine publications, and fugitives on the run from the Nazis. He was arrested by the Germans on October 14th, 1944, and jailed. At some point between October 15th and 23rd, he was placed before a German firing squad, and somebody took a photo that immortalized him as a symbol of the resistance. In it, Georges Blind can be seen smiling in the face of death, as German rifles are aimed at him.
16. Georges Blind Paid With His Life for Refusing to Snitch on His Comrades to the Nazis
The photograph of the heroic Georges Blind calmly smiling at his executioners as they aimed their rifles at him became a powerful symbol of the antifascist struggle. Literally smiling in the face of death has to be one of the manliest ways to meet one’s fate. However, unbeknownst to Blind, he was not destined to die that day. It was a mock execution, used by the Germans as psychological torture in an attempt to scare him into snitching on his resistance comrades.
Blind refused to snitch, so on October 24th, 1944, he was sent to Dachau concentration camp, where he arrived on the 29th. From Dachau, he was sent to Auschwitz, and arrived there on November 24th. There, he was killed by lethal injection on November 30th, 1944. He was posthumously promoted to sergeant in the French Forces of the Interior. He was also posthumously awarded a Croix de Guerre, a Medaille Militaire, a Resistance Medal, and an Honor Medal for Fighters for exceptional services.
Organized crime ran unchecked during the 1920s in Sydney, Australia. Unlicensed bars throve, drugs were sold without fear of the law, while prostitution and protection rackets multiplied. There was also widespread gang violence, and bloodied bodies littering the streets were a common sight during what was known as the “Razor Wars”. Into that chaos stepped Australia’s most heroic female cop, Lillian Armfield (1884 – 1971). She had worked as a nurse for years, then surprised everybody by switching careers to become a Special Constable in Sydney’s police.
The “Special” in “Special Constable” was not a good thing. Lillian was “special” in the sense that she was given no weapons, no uniform, no handcuffs, and only limited powers of arrest. Those restrictions were only imposed on women employed by Sydney’s police. Despite those limitations, Lillian left her mark with deeds that tamed the chaotic crime scene. She broke Sydney’s gangs, wrecked the drug trade, and earned a reputation as one of the city’s most formidable and intimidating cops.
14. This Heroic Cop Was Sent After Dangerous Criminals, Armed Only With a Handbag
As a nurse, Lillian Armfield had worked in an insane asylum, and was exposed to Sydney’s darker side. In 1915, the city formed a Women’s Police Force – the first of its kind in Australia – and encouraged nurses and asylum workers to apply. Lillian fit the bill on both counts, so she signed up. Despite numerous hurdles placed in her way – gender discrimination and sexism were orders of magnitude worse back then – Lillian overcame them and soldiered on. She became Australia’s first female detective, and worked for over thirty years fighting crime and busting criminals.
When she was hired as a detective, Lillian had to sign an indemnity, freeing the police department from responsibility and liability for her safety and welfare. This, despite the fact that she was sent after some of Australia’s most dangerous criminals, armed with nothing more than a handbag. Unlike her male colleagues, Lillian was not only denied a weapon and uniform, she was also denied overtime, recompense for work-related expenses, and worker’s comp for injuries suffered on the job. The final insult came at the end of her three-decade career when, again unlike her male colleagues, she was denied a pension.
13. Lillian Armfield Beat Back an Enraged Drug Dealer With Her Handbag
None of the hurdles placed in Lillian Armstrong’s path by Sydney Police stopped her from becoming one of the country’s most heroic cops. Her employer’s refusal to issue weapons to female officers should have been a serious handicap to Lillian Armfield. Especially since she routinely interacted with dangerous and violent criminals, who had no respect for the police uniform – which Lillian had not been issued, anyhow – or police in general. For example, in 1929, an infamous drug dealer named May Smith, AKA Botany May, grew livid at Lillian’s interference with her trade.
The enraged Botany May grabbed a red-hot iron, and attacked Lillian. The policewoman’s only weapon was her handbag, but it was enough: she used it to beat back her attacker. Smith was arrested, tried, convicted, and received a stint behind bars with hard labor. As that encounter revealed, Lillian did not need a weapon to shine as Sydney’s best cop. In the 1920s, the city was wracked by The Razor Gang Wars. As the name states, they were gang wars fought largely by razors: new laws had introduced severe penalties for carrying concealed firearms, so criminals switched to razors.
Two female crime bosses, who hated each other, ran Sydney’s biggest gangs. One was Kate Leigh, AKA the Sly-Grog (unlicensed bar) Queen. The other was Tilly Devine, AKA the Queen of Woolloomooloo. The crime queens fought each other with all available tools. Their goons slashed each other in the streets. Each one snitched on her rival to the police. They even conducted public relations campaigns in the press by bribing journalists to portray them in the best light possible, while vilifying their foe. The heroic Lillian Armfield took on and wrecked both.
Tilly Devine, the Queen of Woolloomooloo, used to be a London prostitute before she emigrated to Australia. There, she continued her career as a sex worker, and added to her repertoire a series of violent assaults – often with razors – that earned her a reputation as “The Worst Woman in Sydney“. She racked up 79 convictions in just five years, none of which carried serious penalties. That eventually changed, when she got two years in the State Reformatory for bloody assault.
11. These Crime Queens Hated Each Other With a Passion
During her time behind bars, Tilly Devine decided to change her life around. Not in a socially desirable way, however: instead of a prostitute, she became a madam. Criminal statutes back then stated that men could not profit from the sale of sex. That left a loophole for female madams. Within a few years of her release, Devine was well on her way to dominating Sydney’s sex trade. That brought her in conflict with Kate Leigh, another Sydney gang boss who resented Devine’s attempts to monopolize the city’s prostitution rackets.
Known as the Sly-Grog Queen, Leigh specialized in unlicensed bars, drugs, and was also involved in the prostitution racket. She was just as violent as Devine, but shrewder: she was seldom convicted for the violence she ordered or personally dished out. The rivalry between Leigh and Devine grew into personal enmity, which flared into the Razor Wars. The crime queens’ henchmen attacked each other in the streets, raided and trashed each other’s brothels, bars, and stash houses, and snitched on their rivals to the police.
10. After Decades of Workplace Discrimination, This Heroic Policewoman’s Bosses Capped Her Career With a Final Insult
As Sydney’s Razor Wars raged on in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the sight of slashed bodies and blood pools and splatters on the city’s streets became all too common. While crime queens Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine went after and tore each other, Lillian Armfield went after them, and patiently tore down their criminal empires. Her most powerful weapons were doggedness, coupled with kindness. Instead of arresting prostitutes, Lillian showed them compassion and helped them get out of the life.
Between that kindness to exploited workers and a ruthless pursuit of their bosses, Lillian decimated the crime queens’ businesses. She drastically reduced their workforce, drove the once-prosperous Leigh and Devine to impoverishment, broke their power, and ended the Razor Wars. Lillian even put Leigh behind bars on drug charges. The heroic detective stayed on the police force for over three decades, and finally retired in 1949. That was when the establishment dished out its final discriminatory insult: unlike her male colleagues, she was not given a pension.
Ahhotep I (flourished 16th century BC) was Ancient Egypt’s most heroic female fighter. A warrior queen of the Seventeenth Dynasty, Ahhotep led armies in combat against the Hyksos – Semitic invaders who had conquered Lower Egypt. She took control of Egypt’s throne and armies after her husband was killed fighting the invaders, and ruled as regent during the minority of her son, Ahmose I. She kept up the pressure against the Hyksos until her son was old enough to take over the fight.
A stele records Ahhotep’s deeds: “The king’s wife, the noble lady, who knew everything, assembled Egypt. She looked after what her Sovereign had established. She guarded it. She assembled her fugitives. She brought together her deserters. She pacified her Upper Egyptians. She subdued her rebels … She is the one who has accomplished the rites and taken care of Egypt… She has looked after her soldiers, she has guarded her, she has brought back her fugitives and collected together her deserters, she has pacified Upper Egypt and expelled her rebels.”
8. Aahotep I Led Armies Against Invaders, and Fought to Protect Her Son’s Throne
Queen Ahhotep I successfully led her armies against the Hyksos, fought them to a standstill, and kept them at bay long enough for her son to grow up and take over the struggle. When he came of age, her son – a heroic figure in his own right – took the reins of power, took on the Hyksos, defeated and chased them out of Egypt, and reunified the country. As Pharaoh Ahmose I, he founded the Eighteenth Dynasty, during which the Egyptian Empire reached its zenith.
At its height, Ahmose’s realm stretched from Syria in the north to Nubia in the south, and from Mesopotamia in the east to the Libyan deserts in the west. Ahhotep was not done fighting, however. Hyksos-sympathizing rebels tried to seize the throne while her son was away fighting the Nubians. So she rallied loyal troops, fought them off, and foiled their attempt. For that, Ahhotep was awarded the “Golden Flies of Valor” – Ancient Egypt’s highest military award for courage. It was discovered in her tomb, along with weapons and jewelry, thousands of years later.
7. The WWII Pilot Who Left for a Mission on an American Plane and Returned in a German One
WWII has no shortage of heroic deeds. However, few heroic deeds during that or any other conflict could match the daring escape of United States Army Air Forces Second Lieutenant Bruce Ward Carr (1924 – 1998) from the Nazis’ clutches. Carr holds the distinction of being the only USAAF pilot to leave on a combat mission flying an American plane, and return to base flying a German one. It happened in November, 1944, when Carr flew a strafing mission in P-51 fighter, only to get shot down over enemy territory.
That was tough, but not too tough for Carr. He evaded capture, then stole an Fw190 fighter from a German airfield and flew it back home. It was just par for the course for Carr, who exhibited a daring streak from early: he started flying in 1939 when he was just fifteen years old. In 1942, when he turned eighteen, Carr joined the USAAF’s Flying Cadet Training Program. Luckily, he was assigned to the same flight instructor who had taught him how to fly back in 1939.
6. A Heroic Pilot So Good He Scared an Enemy Flyer Into Killing Himself
Bruce Carr’s previous flight experience got him sent to Spence Airfield in Georgia, for an accelerated pilot training program flying P-40 Warhawk fighters. After 240 hours in the air, he graduated as a flight officer in late August 1943, and was sent for additional specialized training. It included qualifying in early models of the North American P-51 Mustang fighter, and its ground attack and dive-bombing variant, the A-36 Apache. Carr was sent to England in early 1944, and was assigned to the 380th Fighter Squadron, 363rd Fighter Group, Ninth Air Force.
Until then, Carr had never flown above 10,000 feet. When he took his P-51 to 30,000 feet, he was so impressed by its handling that he named his airplane “Angel’s Playmate“. He notched his squadron’s first kill, and his first heroic deed of the war, on March 8th, 1944. That day, Carr attacked a Messerschmitt Bf 109 near Berlin and chased it to near-ground-level while firing his guns. Only one hit the enemy fighter, but its pilot panicked. Unable to escape from Carr, the Luftwaffe airman decided to abandon his plane and parachute to the ground. Unfortunately for the German, he jumped too close to the ground for his parachute to fully open.
5. This Pilot’s Heroic Flying Was Seen by His Superiors as “Overaggressive”
Bruce Carr’s superior airmanship that scared an enemy into abandoning his plane and unintentionally killing himself was heroic. Unfortunately, Carr’s superiors refused to give him credit for the downed Bf 109 on the specious reasoning that it had crashed, and not been shot down. He argued that it was his daring pursuit and aggressive flying that had caused the crash. As Carr saw it, he had literally scared the enemy pilot to death, and caused him to kill himself. It did him no good.
Carr was not only denied credit for his first kill, his aggressive airmanship was seen as “overaggressive” by his superiors. So he was transferred to 353rd Squadron, 354th Fighter Group. It was his old squadron’s and fighter group’s loss. Carr fit in better with his new outfit, and became one of the 354th Fighter Group’s top aces. His deadly streak started on June 14th, 1944, when he was credited with a probable kill of a Bf 109 over Normandy, France. Three days later, on the 17th, he shared a kill when he helped another pilot down a Focke-Wulf Fw 190.
Bruce Carr’s daring flying got him noticed, and in August 1944, he was commissioned a second lieutenant. On September 12th, 1944, Second Lieutenant Carr’s squadron strafed Ju-88 bombers on a German airfield. On the way back, his flight spotted more than 30 Fw 190s two thousand feet below them. The Americans pounced, and in-display of daring airmanship, Carr personally shot down three enemy fighters in just a few minutes – an aerial hat trick. He then escorted a fellow American pilot, whose airplane was severely damaged, back to base.
Carr’s heroic exploits that day earned him a Silver Star, America’s third-highest decoration for valor in combat. He became an ace on October 29th, 1944, when he shot down two more Bf 109s over Germany. Four days later, while leading his flight on a strafing run over a German airfield in Czechoslovakia, Carr’s P-51, Angel’s Playmate, was hit by anti-aircraft fire. He bailed out from his fatally damaged plane and parachuted safely to earth. Carr had escaped death in the air. Now he set out to escape Germans on the ground.
Bruce Carr found himself stranded hundreds of miles behind enemy lines. He evaded capture for several days, but the going was rough. Eventually, cold, wet, exhausted, and starving, he decided to surrender. He knew that German airmen treated enemy airmen better than other POWs, so he headed to a Luftwaffe airfield that he had spotted. He made it to the surrounding fence, and decided to hide in adjacent woods that night, then walk up to the front gate and surrender the following morning. However, Carr saw something that made him change his mind: German ground-crew fueling and performing maintenance on an Fw 190 at the edge of a runway, close to his hiding spot.
When they were done, the Germans tightened the panels back on the plane and left, leaving it ready for combat the following morning. A plan began to form in Carr’s mind – more heroic than anything he had pulled off thus far. That night, Carr worked up the nerve to sneak up to the enemy fighter, and climbed into its cockpit. He fought off sleep until dawn’s early light allowed him to inspect the instruments. Everything was labeled in German, but there were enough similarities between the German and American cockpits for Carr to guesstimate what did what.
2. This Airman Pulled Off One of the Most Extraordinary and Heroic Escapes of WWII
Bruce Carr found the Fw 190’s starter lever, spent half an hour building up his courage, then pulled it. Nothing happened. German starters worked the other way around. He eventually pushed it forward instead of pull it back, and the fighter’s BMW motor roared to life. Carr dared not risk his escape by wasting any time taxing to and lining up on the runway. Pouring on full throttle, he raced across a corner of the airfield, between two airplane hangars, then over the heads of sleepy and befuddled Germans. Upon reaching Allied territory, ground troops opened fire on the American pilot’s Fw 190.
To avoid friendly fire, Carr flew just above treetop at 350 mph. After flying about 200 miles, he reached his airfield. Unable to deploy the landing gear or communicate via radio, Carr made decided to make an immediate belly landing before his own airfield’s defenses blasted him out of the sky. Military police surrounded the crashed Fw 190, and refused to accept Carr’s word that he was American. It was finally sorted out when the group commander arrived, and identified his missing pilot. Carr’s heroic escapade made him the only Allied pilot to leave on a mission in a P-51, and return in an Fw 190.
After his return, Bruce Carr was promoted to the first lieutenant and was granted a well-deserved leave. However, his heroic escape was not the end of his heroic deeds, and his wartime exploits were far from over. On April 2nd, 1945, First Lieutenant Carr led three other American fighters on a reconnaissance mission, when they spotted 60 German fighters above them. Despite the 15:1 odds against his flight, Carr immediately led an attack. Within minutes, he and his companions downed 15 Germans. Carr personally shot down two Fw 190s, three Bf 109s, and damaged a sixth plane.
That made Carr the European theater’s last ace-in-a-day (somebody who shot down 5 or more enemy planes in a single day). It also earned him a Distinguished Service Cross, the country’s second-highest award for valor. By war’s end, Carr had flown 172 combat missions, scored 15 confirmed air-to-air kills, several more unconfirmed victories, and numerous ground kills. He flew another 57 combat missions during the Korean War, and 286 more in Vietnam, earning a Legion of Merit and Three Distinguished Flying Crosses. He retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1973, died of prostate cancer in 1998, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading