The Deacons were not the first champions of armed-defense during the civil rights movement, but in November 1964, they were the first to organize as a force.
According to historian Annelieke Dirks,
Even Martin Luther King Jr.—the icon of nonviolence—employed armed bodyguards and had guns in his house during the early stages of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956. Glenn Smiley, an organizer of the nonviolent and pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), observed during a house visit to King that the police did not allow the minister a weapon permit, but "the place is an arsenal."
Smiley convinced King that he could not keep such weapons or plan armed "self-defense", as it was inconsistent with his public positions on non-violence. Dirks explored the emergence of black groups for self-defense in Clarksdale and Natchez, Mississippi from 1960 to 1965.
In many areas of the Deep South, local chapters of the Ku Klux Klan or other white insurgents operated outside the law, and white-dominated police forces practiced discrimination against blacks. In Jonesboro, an industrial town in northern Louisiana, the KKK harassed local activists, burned crosses on the lawns of African-American voters, and burned down five churches, a Masonic hall, and a Baptist center.
Scholar Akinyele O. Umoja notes that by 1965, both the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and CORE supported armed self-defense, although they had long promoted non-violence as a tactic to achieve civil rights. They began to believe that changes in federal law were not sufficient to advance civil rights or to protect activists locally. National CORE leadership, including James Farmer, publicly acknowledged a relationship between CORE and the Deacons for Defense in Louisiana. This alliance between the two organizations highlighted the concept of armed self-defense embraced by many blacks in the South, who had long been subject to white violence. A significant portion of SNCC's southern-born leadership and staff also supported armed self-defense.
Robert F. Williams, president of the NAACP chapter in Monroe, North Carolina, transformed his local NAACP chapter into an armed self-defense unit. He was criticized for this by the national leaders of the NAACP. After he was charged by the state with kidnapping a white couple whom he had sheltered during local violence related to the Freedom Riders in 1961, Williams and his wife left the country, going into exile in Cuba. After Williams' return in 1969, his trial on these charges was scheduled in 1975; that year the state reviewed the case and withdrew the charges. Fannie Lou Hamer of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was another activist who armed herself; she said that in 1964 during Freedom Summer, she kept several loaded guns under her bed.