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?

Before Evan Thomas became an iconic conscientious objector

sailorsandsoldiersmonument
The summer before Evan Thomas leaves the country, 1915 smells of war.

The smell sickens Thomas, a lean young man with a narrow face and alert eyes. Thomas hates living and working at the American Parish, the East Harlem immigrant settlement house pastored by his brother Norman. On every newsstand, headlines scream of battles in Europe and news from Mexico, whose unfinished revolution now includes tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers and sailors. The parish’s immigrants look on with anxiety: They don’t need English to count the European war’s twelve battle zones.

America is officially neutral in that conflict, unlike New York City. Two weeks ago a German submarine attacked the luxury liner Lusitania, leaving 43 Americans among 1153 dead – including one of New York’s own, the dashing millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt. Both tabloid and broadsheet newspapers call Germans “murderers” and demand vengeance. The city’s boy-mayor calls for “preparedness,” as if it’s possible to be prepared for hell.

Even Union Theological Seminary, where Thomas is pursuing a divinity degree, offers little respite. It clusters next to Columbia University, whose flagpoles urging students to “cherish, love and respect ….] the flag of peace and prosperity.” Both campuses mark the 1779 Battle of Harlem Heights. At the seminary, Thomas’ classmates discuss what “preparedness” will require of them.

On Memorial Day tens of thousands cram onto Riverside Drive, to see the veterans of five conflicts march uptown to the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial. Elderly Union soldiers and sailors, their uniforms carefully mended for the occasion, march past signs of the city’s growing wealth: At 74th Street, the veterans and some active-duty troops slowed as they passed Riverside, the three-block French castle built by German immigrant and steel magnate Charles Schwab. At the memorial, a Greek marble stand of Corinthian columns, the United Spanish War Veterans salute General Leonard Wood and retired Rear Admiral Sigsbee, who commanded the U.S.S. Maine when it exploded. Thomas doesn’t go across town to watch the spectacle.

A few weeks later, a similar scent suffuses Princeton, when Thomas goes down for his brother’s graduation. The site of both a 1777 battle and the 1781 Mutiny in January, his alma mater has whole rooms honoring alumni on both sides in the Civil War; at the graduation, its president tells the graduating class of the dangers of peace. If they avoid war, he says, they might lose the chance to become real men.Thomas and some fellow alumni, self-named “the Crusaders,” huddle to wonder aloud what that means for them. The group’s founder, also a Union minister, says the choice is clear: Jesus did his best to stop violence, after all. i Thomas squints into the blinding sunlight.

Thanks for the inspiration, Louisa Thomas.  I hope you don’t mind how I reframed the moment you found, and wrote about in  Conscience:Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family — A Test of Will and Faith in World War.

"the illusion that they have rights"

Many people I know, especially veterans (even antiwar vets), have mixed feelings about Lieutenant Ehren Watada, whose trial was blocked today by a federal judge. Some vets saw it as a betrayal of those under his command, others that the war was best resisted from within, For other, including myself, the ambivalence stems from  the way his original decision — as the first Army officer to refuse to deploy to Iraq — was first taken up by (admittedly hard-working and sincere) front groups for front groups for the ossified sectarian left (whose militant rhetoric makes most of us giggle these days). All of which made it harder for many to simply look at what the 27-year-old college and OCS graduate was actually saying, about what he still considers an illegal order. Thank god for non-front groups like CCW and Vets for Peace, from whom I got the news today.

Those of you who’ve checked this page out more than once (why? Please comment, and lemme know!) know I’ve mostly been mired in the previous century, and mostly enmeshed in the lives of the Civil War vets who years later spoke out — opposing the annexation of what would become Watada’s home state, and joining in a grand effort to stop the Philippine War. “It is nothing but a wanton stretch of power. It is
lust for power and greed for land veneered with the tawdriness of false humanity,” wrote one, by then a U.S. senator as well as a survivor of the Battles of Shiloh and Spotsylvania. His sentiment echoes Watada’s, but the quote that gave this post a title is from far earlier, because I think it’s more relevant to what Watada faces next.

The judge in the case, Benjamin Settle, only dismissed three of the five counts against Watada:

Settle barred the military from retrying Watada on charges of missing his redeployment to Iraq, taking part in a news conference and participating in a Veterans for Peace national convention.

But the court did not rule out the possibility that the Army, after considering legal issues, could retry Watada on two counts of conduct unbecoming an officer resulting from his media interviews.

Watada’s attorney sensibly told the press that he hopes to get those charges dropped. That could be done without explicit vindication of Watada’s position. But part of me wants to see that second trial, if only to prove Sylvanus Thayer wrong.

Thayer, the “Father of West Point,” in 1819 blamed a early mutiny at the academy on “the erroneous and unmilitary impressions of the Cadets that they have rights to defend.”

Someone should write a book about soldiers and vets who hold on to that “erroneous” impression. Oh right, I forgot.

Congratulations, Lt. Watada. When can I give you a call?