Recent Comments

    It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way: Marching for Our Lives

    By John Lewis–

    When I learned about the upcoming “March for Our Lives” to end gun violence and shootings in schools, I reflected back on when gun violence first affected me in any type of personal way. What came to mind was an evening in 1966 when I was 8 years old. My grandmother and my great aunt, who was like a second grandmother to me, were visiting our family in suburban Kansas City where I grew up. When my great aunt was out of earshot, my grandmother told my family about a letter she had recently received from her nephew Jack, my great aunt’s son, who was like a brother to my dad. At the time, Jack was a colonel in the U.S. Army combat forces in Vietnam.

    Jack’s letter described how his roommate had left their barracks to go eat dinner when a Viet Cong soldier had appeared out of nowhere, shot him dead, and then quickly disappeared into the night. My grandmother wanted to share with my dad how much danger Jack was in, and I’ll never forget her admonishing us: “Don’t you ever tell your great aunt because she will become overcome with worry.”

    The war in Vietnam and neighboring Cambodia and Laos resulted in the deaths of millions of civilians and military combatants. March 16 marked the 50th anniversary of the infamous My Lai massacre in which members of the American military murdered as many as 504 unarmed civilians in a village in South Vietnam.

    The American military initially misreported and covered up this mass murder. Eventually, General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in the war in Vietnam from 1964–1968, admitted that it was, in fact, “the conscious massacre of defenseless babies, children, mothers, and old men in a kind of diabolical slow-motion nightmare that went on for the better part of a day, with a cold-blooded break for lunch.”

    At the court martial of Lieutenant William Calley, the only person convicted for the massacre and who served only 3 and a half years under house arrest, Private Dennis Conti testified to part of what he witnessed. Private Conti described an incident in which Calley and another private “fired directly into” a group of unarmed Vietnamese civilians, who had been rounded up and pushed into a rice paddy. “There were bursts and single shots for two minutes,” he said. “It was automatic. The people screamed and yelled and fell. I guess they tried to get up, too. They couldn’t … . Lots of heads was (sic) shot off, pieces of heads and pieces of flesh flew off the sides and arms … . [The other private] fired a little bit and broke down. He was crying. He said he couldn’t do [it] anymore.”

    The bloodbath only ended because three American soldiers not only refused to participate in it, but also stood up to stop it. Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson and his two crew members, Glenn Andreotta and Lawrence Colburn, discovered the ongoing massacre as they were flying a helicopter reconnaissance mission in the area. Most dramatically, they landed the helicopter next to where American soldiers appeared ready to murder ten Vietnamese civilians, and Thompson ordered his crew to shoot any American soldiers who fired upon the civilians while Thompson and his crew rescued the civilians to safety.

    Thompson and his crew reported the massacre multiple times to officers in higher command. He tried to save as many people as he could and evacuated as many of the injured as possible to medical care.

    My cousin Jack survived the war and returned home, but he witnessed so much carnage in Vietnam that, for the rest of his life, he could not bear to witness any living being, including a small animal, suffering in physical pain. In the early 1980s, I worked with Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees from the war and listened to numerous survivors tell of the violent deaths of their loved ones at the hands of guns and other weapons.

    Of course, gun violence has destroyed countless lives on American soil as well. Varnado Simpson, who admitted to murdering Vietnamese civilians at My Lai, including a 2-year-old child, returned home to Jackson, Mississippi, after the war. In 1977, Simpson’s own 10-year-old son was killed in random gun violence while he was playing outside of his house. Simpson recalled, “He died in my arms. And when I looked at him, his face was like the same face of the child that I had killed.” Simpson shot himself to death 20 years later after suffering for years with PTSD. In my most recent personal connection to gun violence, a neighbor who lives a block and a half from us in San Francisco was shot in front of his house in the middle of the afternoon three weeks ago in a drive-by shooting.

    It doesn’t have to be this way. In 2014, a total of 33,599 Americans died in gun violence. In Japan, the total for the entire year was just six. In the U.S., there are an estimated 101 guns per 100 residents; in Japan, the number is 0.6.

    Hugh Thompson and his crew were initially vilified for their efforts to stop the mass murder at My Lai 50 years ago. It took 30 years for the American military to give Thompson and his crew (one posthumously) appropriate credit for their leadership in stopping the killing. Thompson later counseled, “Don’t do the right thing looking for a reward, because it might not come.”

    Today, high school students are on the forefront of a movement to end gun violence. Like Thompson, they are doing the right thing, not for a reward, but to save lives. We look forward to joining them at the March 24 “March for Our Lives” and beyond.

    John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.