John Lewis was a conscientious objector to war. Did you know that?

This blog, like my book, doesn’t tend to dwell on the brave folk who completely avoided military jurisdiction — the thousands in CPS camps during World War Two, the literal millions who spent the Vietnam era in alternative-service jobs. All of whom are important and honored, but to include their stories would swamp an already-capacious text.

However, when John Lewis died, I was reminded by the folk at Center on Conscience and War that part of Lewis’ iconic nonviolent resistance was becoming the first Black conscientious objector in Alabama. They suggested I write this piece, which then appeared on Waging Nonviolence.org, in a section curated by War Resisters League.

In many ways Lewis was adjacent to our story, including his direct link with our old pal Bayard Rustin. (Thus the photo above, sitting with Lewis, James Farmer and Andrew Young at the 1964 signing of the Civil Rights Act.) And Lewis’ Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee stood with with the Fort Hood Three when they announced their refusal to deploy. What would that photo I wrote about earlier look like, if Lewis had sat beside them instead of Stokely Carmichael?

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The heroic John Lewis was a conscientious objector to war, something barely mentioned in all the elegies unfurled in his honor.

I was surprised to see so many of the well-written obituaries, including in the New York Times, fail to mention Lewis’ opposition to war; so did the beautiful elegies spoken at his funeral. But to erase this vital part of Lewis’ history feels both dishonest and potentially damaging to the movements he has helped inspire.

This moment after the murder of George Floyd needs that piece of good trouble — the spirit of war resisters. That spirit is already visible, in those resisting militarized police and federal agents in camo. They know, as Lewis did, that the “infrastructure of oppression police” is international in scope; most know that nonviolent protests trace back to those resisting war. John Lewis refused to be part of that infrastructure, to join the international shock troops deployed against people of color everywhere.

In 1961, after years enacting Gandhian practices of nonviolent action in Freedom Rides and at lunch counters, Lewis told his draft board that he was a conscientious objector — defined as a person with beliefs that make it impossible to be part of war or preparations for war. Lewis modeled his actions after the great reverend James Lawson, who spoke eloquently at his funeral about teaching Lewis non-violent resistance in those 1958 workshops in the basement of his Nashville church. Lawson was himself a conscientious objector, like fellow civil rights icon Bayard Rustin — and, like Rustin, he spent years in prison for his beliefs and then went to India to study.

The draft board declared Lewis “morally unfit” because of how often he had been arrested.

Lewis’s draft board denied his CO application in 1961. He appealed that determination repeatedly, while his commitment to nonviolence grew as he spoke at the March on Washington and mobilized hundreds to register voters during the 1964 “Freedom Summer.” At the end of the summer of 1964, Lewis’ appeal was granted, making him the first Black conscientious objector in Alabama.

The draft board reversed its decision two years later. By 1966, Lewis was nationally known for his voting-rights activism and March 1965 heroism on “Bloody Sunday” on the bridge from Selma to Montgomery. When he arrived in Selma, Lewis was carrying a book by Thomas Merton, a monk who’d hosted peace activists including Father Dan Berrigan. In August 1965, Lewis was in Washington on the day when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.

A few months later, in January 1966, the always-internationalist Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, which Lewis chaired, threw a shot at the bow of the Johnson Administration’s cornerstone military policy, not just opposing the war in Vietnam but supporting draft resistance. In their anti-war manifesto, they said, “We [also] take note of the fact that 16 percent of the draftees from this country are Negroes called on to stifle the liberation of Vietnam, to preserve a ‘democracy’ which does not exist for them at home.” Lewis didn’t write that statement, but when asked he told reporters he supported every word.

Immediately after SNCC’s Jan. 6 press conference, the FBI in Atlanta wired Washington and the Department of Defense cancelled Lewis’s 1-O status as a conscientious objector; he was now classified as 4-F or “not qualified to serve.” The draft board declared Lewis “morally unfit” because of how often he had been arrested. In those days, anti-war activists often hailed a 4F as a badge of honor and it galvanized them to keep organizing.

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Decades later, Lewis carried his conscientious opposition to war onto the Congress floor. Arguing in 2002 against the invasion of Iraq, Lewis thundered on the House floor: “What fruit will our actions bear, not just for us but for our children?” Lewis asked. “And not just for the children of our own land, but the children of the West, and the Middle East, and the world? It is the children, our little boys and girls, who must live with the consequences of our war.”

Five years later, Lewis was the first member of Congress to actively support the Appeal for Redress, an action in which thousands of active-duty military personnel appealed for a withdrawal from Iraq using their constitutional right to seek redress of grievances. Most recently, Lewis responded to the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani with the Unconstitutional War with Iran Act of 2019, to “prohibit funds from being used for kinetic military operations against Iran” without congressional authorization.

Lewis himself affirmed that in his final testimonial for the New York Times: “In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way.” How is that not worth honoring?

Published by chrislombardi

Journalist, novelist, educator.

One thought on “John Lewis was a conscientious objector to war. Did you know that?

  1. It was a delight to share the time together in CCW’s wonderful gathering. So many good resources (many new to me,) so many old friendships remembered. I would be glad to get on your email list, and follow your work. I might also share recollections from my own famly’s history, going back to WW II and my imprisoned uncle (Roger W. Axford) who part of the Danbury (CT) federal prison action where C.O.s successfully resisted official racial segregation.
    Roger also held a sit-in covering several months on the steps of the Department of Justice in D.C., in a prison striped suits,petitioning for the release of imprisoned C.O.s after the war had ended. He spoke with Atty Genl Tom Clark every day as he entered the building! Igal Roodenko, locked up in Sandstone (MN), was the last to be released, and Uncle Roger showed me the telegram sent to him on D.O.J.’s private line saying they were letting him out, so Roger could now go home as well!
    Your work has my every encouragement. Shalom, —DHF

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