I’ve been writing a lot about draft resistance lately. In the materials Don Laughlin collected related to Quakers and draft resistance, I found the following story written by John Griffith, member of Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative), War Resistance in World War II, describing his experience. John has kindly given me permission to share this with you.
John H. Griffith
The following account of war resistance is in response to a request by Larry Gara, Professor of History at Wilmington College, Wilmington Ohio. Larry has asked other World War Il war resisters (conscientious objectors who served prison sentences rather than comply with conscription) to submit brief accounts of their war resistance experiences. He plans to present them as a collection for publication.
For several months in 1944, Larry and I were together, confined to segregation cells at the Federal prison in Ashland, Kentucky. We had both refused to cooperate with prison regulations which we felt to be detrimental to human dignity. After prison we both attended William Penn College in Oskaloosa, Iowa. We have maintained our friendship over the intervening years.
It should be said in this preface that this account is not intended to be an argument for the validity of non-violence. For an introduction to that subject it is suggested that the reader study India’s struggle for independence under the leadership of Gandhi and the struggle for civil rights under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr.
This story is simply the account of some of the experiences of one war resister during World War Il.
An Amendment to the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, approved December 20, 1941, required the registration of all male citizens of the USA between the ages of 18 and 65. Nineteen years old at the time, with a registration date of June 30, 1942, I wrote a registered letter on June 29, 1942 to General H. B. Springs, Head of Selective Service in South Carolina. In this letter I wrote, “I take this Opportunity to inform you of my position. I am conscientiously opposed to war, for any cause whatever, and shall refuse to comply with this act, or any act in the future which I feel to be a contradiction of Christian teachings, democratic liberty and individual freedom ”
In re-reading this letter 54 years later, I am surprised to note that did not plainly say that I intended to refuse to register. There is no question, however, that General Springs was aware of this by the following day when my father wrote, “My son knows about the law concerning registration. He feels that here is the place to take his stand against war, and I must take my stand with him where he thinks best. I tried to show him that he would not be compromising to register, but he thinks otherwise.”
The following story is about how I arrived at this decision and the consequences of this action
Since the age of seven I have been aware of a spiritual dimension to life A few years later the awareness that one can have guidance from this spiritual side of life became a reality to me. A few more years and I came to appreciate that each of us is also the product of cultural conditioning and that spiritual guidance is usually affected by one’s cultural conditioning. So I would like to say a few things about my cultural conditioning.
My mother died when I was twelve years old. That event had a profound effect upon me. I saw how precious life is and how horrible the suffering when a loved one suddenly dies. I developed a comfort in being alone and practiced rudimentary levels of contemplation. I am sure this confession would amaze my high school classmates. To them I was a regular guy–outgoing, active in sports. I was usually class president in public school. But this other contemplative side, this being aware of how precious life is, was very much a part of who I was. And it was a contributing factor in my abhorrence of war.
I was also influenced by my father’s ministry in the Methodist Church. Even though my father could have been deferred as a minister, he volunteered for service in World War I. The war ended within just a few months of his enlistment and he did not see service overseas. But the war was a significant experience for him and he was quite aware of the maiming and killing that went on in “the war to end all war. ” After the war, my father returned to ministry in the Methodist Church.
My father was studious. History was his favorite field of study. Within a few years after the war, his study of history led to disillusionment with war. He came to view the demonizing of the German people during World War I as a lie. He became convinced that the war was about lust for power and economic advantage for a few political and industrial leaders. He believed that innocent young men on both sides were deceived into killing each other on behalf of those few. And he came to see that war is incompatible with the teachings of Jesus.
My earliest memory of the anti-military focus of my father’s ministry is a reference he made about the national anthem when it was adopted by the US Congress in 1931. He complained that the “Star Spangled Banner” glorified war and that a much better national anthem would be “America the Beautiful”. Why this would impress a nine-year-old, I do not know. But it is part of my cultural conditioning.
I assume my father was consistent in preaching against war although I confess I was only dimly aware of this until sometime after 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. That message then became part of world reality. It was no longer just an “feel good” message to deliver to a contented congregation on a pleasant Sunday morning.
I remember, at the time of the invasion of Poland, that in discussions with my friends I was firmly opposed to going overseas to kill young men who would be there only because their government had conscripted them. As I recall, I said I would reluctantly agree to Coast Guard service which I perceived to be purely defensive. I think my father’s conviction that young men had been misled in World War I was embedded in my consciousness.
As the war expanded and became more threatening during the next couple years, I became concerned about what I should do if and when our government decided to conscript American youth for war. I read a great deal Reading the Methodist youth magazine “Motive,” the writings of A. J. Muste of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, accounts of the non-violent struggle for independence in India under the leadership of Gandhi, the teachings of Jesus and, in addition, the practice of meditative prayer were all important aspects of this search for a right course of action
My position gradually shifted from a willingness to serve in the Coast Guard (killing for defense) to service in the medical corps (no killing). I then became troubled that serving in the medical corps was an integral part of the war process and my serving there would only release someone else to do the killing. I next considered applying for conscientious objector status which would involve doing work of national importance within the conscription system. I soon came to believe this action presented the same dilemma, for me, as serving in the medical corps.
Perhaps it was early in 1942 that I experienced a drastic shift in my thinking. Up until then I had been thinking of how best to accommodate the legal requirements of the Selective Service System. But now it seemed to me that the whole world was going insane. And rather than seeking accommodation, I felt a need to say as emphatically as I could that war is insane and that conscription is the first step in that insanity. I decided to refuse to register.
At the time I was supposed to register I was a counselor at a YMCA camp near Columbia, SC A few days after I mailed my letter to General Springs, YMCA officials came to camp to visit me. The FBI had informed them of my pending arrest. The YMCA officials urged me to register for the draft and apply for conscientious objector classification. When they became convinced that I was firm in my intention not to register, they suggested that I go home to be arrested. They wanted to avoid embarrassment for the YMCA.
My first experience of verbal abuse as a non-registrant occurred July 9, 1942—the day I was arrested by the FBI and taken to the US District Attorney’s office. Claude Sapp, the District Attorney, came barging into the office, his face flushed with anger. My diary entry of this incident is, “I managed to keep cool and refused to answer any of his questions until he would talk like a gentleman, but Dad got hot and told him off” All of my diary entries are very concise. My memory of the details runs more like this Mr. Sapp entered the office and said, “Listen here, boy, just who in the hell do you think you are. I want you to know that I am the United States District Attorney and I am not going to put up with this shit. I am telling you right now to get your ass down to the draft board and register like you are supposed to.” I responded, “Mr. Sapp, if you want me to talk with you about my position, the first thing you have to do is to stop cussing and talk like a gentleman “Mr. Sapp answered, “You listen here, you unpatriotic slacker…” Then my father interrupted and said, “Now wait a minute, Mr Sapp, I want you to listen to me “ (this account is based on a newspaper item covering the event) “I served in World War I because I believed in the American cause. After the war I became disillusioned and ever since then I have opposed war. I love my country, but you don’t have to go to war to show your patriotism. I have another son in the Navy. I think he is sincerely trying to do the right thing and I will stand by him. But John is also trying to do the right thing. I can assure you he is not unpatriotic, and I will stand by him as he tries to be true to his religion and to his conscience.” A short time later Mr. Sapp exclaimed that he was finished trying to reason with this “idiot.” My father was unable to meet bail requirements of $7,500 so Mr. Sapp ordered the FBI agents to take me to jail. When the steel doors clanged shut behind me, I felt peaceful and happy.
The jail was the Richland County jail. In my diary I noted: “For the noon day meal I had a cinnamon roll and a cup of buttermilk for supper I had seven slices of bread and a cup of stale syrup. I couldn’t stomach the syrup. Last night wasn’t very peaceful. Bedbugs feasted on Griffith flesh for the first time and seemed to enjoy it immensely.” Not included in the diary entry was note of the presence of foot-long rats which seemed to have little fear of humans. In desperation I made a torch out of a newspaper in an effort to kill the bedbugs in the cracks of the solid steel bed–no mattress—I was to sleep on. I slept very little.
The next afternoon I was transferred to Sumter County Jail. I learned from the US Marshals that the Richland County Jail was condemned by federal officials and that a federal prisoner could be held there for no longer than 24 hours before being transferred to an approved jail I had another 24 hour stay in the Richland County Jail after my trial in November 1942.
The Sumter County jail was a big improvement over Richland County—no bedbugs, no rats and the food was OK. There were six other federal prisoners. We all shared one big cage type room. My diary notes “175 bars to insure my safekeeping.” I quickly made friends with the other prisoners.
On July 16, 1942 1 noted in my diary, “Spent most of the day reading and answering letters… I have gained a lot in the way of new friends in comparison to enemies. The friends I have now are ones you can count on no matter what comes… I hope that I will have the chance to make the others understand. Today I nearly cried when I read my letters. I didn’t have one criticizing me. They were all from fine, free thinking people who can never know how happy they have made me… .1 have felt happiness many times before, but it is seldom that it touches so deeply in my soul as it did today. I actually felt like turning ‘Holy Roller’ and shouting in praise to God— in bonds yet freer than the free”
On July 17, I had my second experience of verbal abuse. My diary reports, “A prominent Sumter doctor came up to see me today and for the first time I was called a son of a bitch through bars… .1 must be more Christian now for I felt no anger but only sympathy for the old gentleman. Not mentioned in the diary is my memory that the good doctor also accused me of being a coward.
Several of my cellmates came to my defense and told the doctor, with equally profane eloquence, that he didn’t know what he was talking about if he thought that I was a coward. The other noteworthy thing about my experience in Sumter was that we had a spell of unseasonably hot weather. The cell was on the second floor of the jail next to a flat roof. My diary states that the radio was reporting temperatures of 103 degrees in Sumter. My jail buddies and I were estimating temperatures of at least 115 to 120 degrees in our cell. It may well have been higher. I literally lay in a puddle of my own sweat when trying to sleep at night. This lasted several days. A couple of my cellmates were elderly (probably 60 years old) and were having a rough time with the heat. I, on the other hand, was in excellent physical condition. During the early hours of the night I would fan these older gentlemen until they dropped off to sleep They appreciated it and I felt good knowing that one could be of service to humanity even in jail
July 23—two weeks after being jailed—my dad came to take me home. Two courageous families in his church had put up their homes with a combined value of $ 16,000 as security for my bond. To convey some sense of relative money values between 1942 and 1996, those two homes in Columbia today would, I am sure, have a combined market value of well over $200,000! My bond had been set at $7,500 cash or $15,000 property. That was a lot of money in 1942. Both of these families stated for the press that they were not supporting my position but were rather assisting their pastor.
Several incidents are noteworthy during the time that I was out on bond and before my trial–July 23 to November 2, 1942.
First, I discovered when I got home that my father now wanted me to register. He was under intense pressure to get me to register and was having trouble sleeping at night. He told me that I had made my witness. He even said that my stand had been the best thing for South Carolina he had witnessed. There had been extensive press and radio coverage. But he now thought I should register. But I felt that to register would be a betrayal of what conscience was telling me I needed to do.
We agreed that I would go to the Methodist Conference Center in the mountains at Lake Junaluska, NC to have time to reflect and re-evaluate my position. We both knew that the noted Methodist missionary to India, Dr. E Stanley Jones was at Junaluska. Dad thought it would be good if I discussed the situation with Dr. Jones.
I took this very seriously and was considerably troubled that my father was suffering. I had a conference with Dr. Jones. We talked for perhaps a couple hours and his final advice was–according to my diary–“that I should view my actions not for success, or failure, but to do only as a Higher Intelligence directs me.” I am sure my father had hoped Dr. Jones would encourage me to register. Dr. Jones had not done this, but I still was not sure what I was supposed to do in terms of his “Higher Intelligence” advice.
A couple of days later I had a very moving experience. I did not record it in my diary. In reading my diary as information for this paper, I notice an entry on August l, 1942, (seven days after the experience), “Told Dad that I would not register. Hope I can make him see that I am doing the right thing. It is a fact for me now. So many things happened to me at Junaluska concerning this that I am afraid to write them down in my diary, much less tell Dad about them.”
I did write my father about this experience in a letter dated August 6, 1943 from federal prison at Petersburg, VA. This letter was in response to his question about a hymn which he had noticed I had handwritten in the front of my New Testament, “Jesus, I my cross have taken. All to leave and follow thee. Destitute, despised, forsaken, Thou from hence my all shall be.”
In the letter of August 6, I wrote, “The evening before I left Junaluska I was by myself in the open air auditorium in prayer. Perhaps meditation is a better word for I really wasn’t saying anything in my mind. After a while of such meditation I happened to glance at the hymnal in my hand and at the same time felt a strong urge to open it. It opened to page 92 ” (This was the hymn mentioned above. I think I referred to the page number as I didn’t want the prison censor to know what I was talking about). “The words shocked me a bit, but I closed the hymnal with the word ‘accident’ in my mind. But, Dad, the experience was repeated several times! I realize the danger involved in inferring revelation. I only know that something let loose inside me and that for the first time in months I knew what Peace was. I wrote ‘hymn 92’ in my New Testament (at that time).”
I did not tell my father how different and profound the instruction was to open the hymnal. Nor did I share with him that I also knew then that I would not register under any imaginable circumstance. I felt then that I was at the place of personal commitment Gandhi asked of his followers, “When using non-violent resistance, state the minimum objective of your resistance and be prepared to die for it.”
The experience at Junaluska would have to be considered a Christ-centered experience. In honesty, I should record here that since that time my religious thought has shifted from being Christ-centered Methodist to Quaker Universalist. The subtleties of the differences between these two are far beyond the scope of this paper. While I now think the Junaluska experience would have been different for a Quaker Universalist, I acknowledge that the Junaluska experience, whatever the explanation, completely resolved any doubts that I had about what I was supposed to do.
The second experience of note during the time between my arrest and being sentenced has to do with my relationship with my closest high school friends. According to my diary, on August 16, 1942 my younger brother, Bill, and I decided to visit our friends in Easley, SC (115 miles from Columbia). We had moved to Easley when I was in the seventh grade. I had remained there to finish high school with my friends even though my family moved to Lancaster, SC midway through my senior year. During this time I lived with one of my best friends, Dupree Sitton.
When I arrived at the house where six of my friends, including Dupree, were sitting on the porch I went over to sit down by Dupree. Without a word, he got up and left, obviously angry and indignant. No one said a word about why Dupree had acted this way. According to my diary, only one of my six friends seemed to be relaxed in my presence. The other four, after Dupree left, were civil, but I had the feeling that they were noticeably reserved. Perhaps they were startled by Dupree’s behavior. Perhaps each of them wondered if any of the others felt like Dupree. I noted in my diary that even though they tried to act as if they were glad to see me, “it was that certain artificial gladness that I am becoming used to. ” I had planned to stay in Easley overnight to visit with my friends but after a short time with them I decided to spend the night with relatives in Greenville. I was very disappointed.
The third experience relates to my relationship with Emily Hinnant–a young girl in our church. We both considered that we were very much in love. As soon as I was arrested Emily’s parents angrily told her never to date me again. We did manage to see each other at church youth functions but dates were almost out of the question. On one occasion when Emily was returning from an evening church program, Emily’s mother thought she had secretly dated me. She slapped Emily hard. Emily smiled, and her mother slapped her again. Emily smiled again and was slapped a third time. Her mother then stormed out of the room threatening to disown her. Interestingly, Emily never professed pacifism during our relationship.
Emily moved out of her family home, and for a short time stayed with an older, married sister who was friendly toward me. Shortly after that, Emily signed up for a nurse’s training program at the medical school in Charleston. A short time after I had been sentenced and was in Sumter County jail (waiting transfer to a federal prison), Emily wrote that she was questioning her love for me and said she thought she should date other boys. I wrote encouraging her in this. We continued to correspond for a short time. But within a few months Emily married a military person stationed in Charleston. She died of cancer while I was still in prison.
The fourth experience is related to my trial. At first both my father and I agreed that there was no point in having an attorney. I knew that I was guilty of violating the law and planned to plead guilty. However, while out on bond, we visited Sky Valley, a retreat center near Hendersonville, NC which was owned and managed by a retired-lawyer (also a pacifist) from Columbia, James Perry. Mr. Perry thought that it was advisable to have a lawyer represent me in court. I cannot remember why Mr. Perry did not volunteer to do that himself. Perhaps he had let his license expire.
When we returned to Columbia I contacted several lawyers Mr. Perry had mentioned. Only one of them–Mr. Hubert–showed any inclination to accept me as a client. It became clear after several sessions with Mr. Hubert that he also was very reluctant to be associated with the case. I remember he asked me to read the account of the trial and death of Socrates in Plato’s “Apology.” I think Mr. Hubert thought the lesson to learn from Socrates was that Socrates was willing to die in acknowledging the authority of the state. What I saw in the story was that Socrates was willing to die rather than to stop his search for Truth. In any event, Mr. Hubert’s reluctance to represent me reflected the intense nationalist feeling in Columbia at that time.
When I was arrested, a Quaker by the name of Wilmer Young read of my arrest in the newspaper and came to see if he could be of any assistance and to give moral support to my family. He and his wife were operating an American Friends Service Committee project near Abbeville, SC (85 miles from Columbia) designed to help sharecropper families become land owners. After this initial visit, we continued to be in touch with Wilmer Young and advised him of our experience in trying, unsuccessfully, to get legal assistance. A few days later we had a phone call from an elderly Quaker lawyer from Philadelphia, Walter Longstreth. Walter Longstreth said Wilmer Young had informed him of the situation and he would consider it a privilege to come to Columbia and represent me in court. He assured us there would be no charge for his services.
When Walter Longstreth arrived at our home a day or two before my trial, I shared with him the statement I wished to make in court. He liked the statement. He felt fairly certain, however, that with the strong feeling in Columbia regarding my case that the judge would not allow me to make the statement. He advised that we make 500 copies of the statement. Then, in the event the judge disallowed the statement in court, my father, my stepmother and a courageous young Methodist minister, Claude Evans, would hand out the statements in the courtroom to the general public as well as the news media. Mr Longstreth thought there was some risk of being held in contempt of court, but it was agreed an attempt would be made to distribute the printed statements.
As it turned out, when Walter Longstreth asked the judge if I might plead guilty and then make a statement to the Court, the judge agreed to this. I made the statement without incident. In my statement I said I could not reconcile war with the teachings of Jesus. I said Gandhi’s struggle in India was showing humankind an alternative to war. I said that by refusing to register I considered I was making one more protest against man’s inhumanity to man and for that I would cheerfully accept any penalty handed down by the court.
Another part of Walter Longstreth’s service as my legal representative was to give a brief biographical account of my life. He told the court of my popularity in school, my leadership in Methodist youth programs, my volunteer work in a Methodist “settlement house” serving the poorest people in Columbia, and my volunteer service as a counselor at YMCA camp. He finally pleaded with the judge to sentence me to a year and a day in prison which, we understood, was the minimum sentence the judge would consider.
Although Walter Longstreth represented me as well as I could have been represented, Federal Judge G. B. Timmerman sentenced me to 30 months in prison and a fine of $200 In explaining why he could not impose the minimum sentence, Judge Timmerman said, “It seems to me that by his example he is, in reality, urging others to do just as he has done, because we can teach quite as forcefully by example as by word of mouth. ” Given the framework of the law, the level of nationalistic feeling in SC and the directness with which conscription was being challenged, Judge Timmerman would have been well within the scope of his responsibility if he had given the maximum penalty prescribed by law–five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. I never learned if or how the $200 fine was paid.
At the time I refused to register my father was pastor of Main Street Methodist Church in Columbia, SC Main Street was the largest Methodist church in South Carolina at that time. In the two years he had ministered to this church, it had experienced unusual growth, and Dad was enjoying considerable popularity with the main body of church members and attenders. The church was usually well filled on Sunday morning. There were, however, a few men–a couple on the church board of stewards– who considered themselves to be powers behind the scene and who were not happy with the social gospel my father was preaching. I am sure they thought it lacked patriotic fervor.
As soon as I was arrested, these few men mounted a campaign to have my father removed from Main Street Church. Lies about my father were fed into the rumor mill and a delegation went to see the bishop. The bishop had his district superintendent (the church official within church hierarchy between the bishop and my father) visit my father. The bishop’s message, via the district superintendent, was, “If you care about your ministry, you had better make that boy register.” My father did not mention this incident to me. I learned about it much later. But I realize now that it was part of the pressure he was under when he asked me to register after getting out of the Sumter County Jail.
I was sentenced on November 2, 1942. Within several weeks my father was notified, by the bishop, that he was being transferred to a much smaller church about as far away from Columbia as is possible and still remain within the geographical boundaries of the conference.
As it turned out this was a major turning point in my father’s ministry in South Carolina Methodism. Other ministers came to admire my father for his courage in standing behind a nonconformist son and for not compromising his own ministry during a time of intense nationalism. He became the acknowledged leader of reform-minded ministers in South Carolina Methodism. In the years following the war, the church in South Carolina underwent significant changes toward being more democratic under the persistent lobbying of my father and the reform-minded ministers who followed his leadership.
When I began serving my sentence at the federal prison near Petersburg, VA, I was committed to follow another of Gandhi’s instructions to his non-violent followers, “When in prison as a non-violent resister, be a model prisoner.”
When I arrived at Petersburg there was one other non-registrant there–David Morgan, son of a Baptist minister in NC. There were probably a dozen Jehovah’s Witness inmates who, when denied ministerial exemption, had refused induction. The rest of the prison population (several hundred) was largely made up of uneducated men who were caught making or transporting whiskey. A minority were in for such things as driving stolen cars across state lines, transporting prostitutes across state lines, sending pornography through the mail, etc., A few had been arrested while in the military. Over the next year and a half, the number of C.O.s (conscientious objectors) gradually increased to perhaps a dozen and the Jehovah’s Witnesses increased by a couple hundred or so.
I quickly settled into a routine of work, study, exercise, meditation, and trying to be as helpful as possible to my fellow inmates. Some of them were illiterate. I wrote many letters for these men and read their incoming family mail to them. One especially tender memory I have is concerned with an illiterate inmate the same age as my father. This man’s son, my age, was operating a “moonshine” still on the father’s property. When federal law officers discovered the still, the father claimed ownership to keep his son out of prison. I believe that the father’s sentence was eighteen months. After several months of being this man’s letter writer and letter reader, I was especially saddened when he received a letter from his wife informing him that their son had been arrested for rape. The poor man was devastated. My memory is that the son was sentenced to 15 years in the state penitentiary.
Although there were opportunities at Petersburg for recreational sports, I felt that with the war on, sports were frivolous. I did occasionally play checkers with some of the men after the library had closed for the day. But my main endeavor during “free time” was serious reading. I eagerly tackled books on religion, philosophy, history, economics and sociology. I also took several university level correspondence courses.
I think that, on the whole, I developed a good rapport with most of the other inmates as well as with most of the guards. However, there were a few inmates, probably no more than six, and perhaps three or four guards who seemed to feel it their patriotic duty to harass “draft dodgers.”
The closest I came to physical attack by an inmate was by a man named Clive. Clive was perhaps 25 to 30 years old and about my size. He was also the leader of the few inmates who disliked draft violators. He constantly made derogatory comments about “draft dodgers. ” I, just as habitually, tried to respond with humor and good will. As I recall this incident, Clive was seated at the table across from me during the evening meal.. He started in on his draft dodger thing with me and I reminded him that he also was avoiding the army by being in prison. I think Clive thought I was calling him a “draft dodger” and he became very angry. He jumped to his feet, grabbed a table knife and threatened “I’ll kill you, you bastard, if you call me a draft dodger.”
I replied, “You know, Clive, you have been cussing and threatening me for a long time now. I have tried to be friendly with you but it seems to do no good. Now if you would like to go out behind the mess hall (normally out-of-view of the guards) and get this out of our systems, it’s OK with me. ” Clive looked perplexed. He finally stammered something to the effect, “I ain’t going to the hole for fighting you. You ain’t worth it. ” What Clive didn’t know was that I fully intended to respond non-violently to his aggression. As it worked out, Clive didn’t harass me after that. Sometime later he even asked me to write a couple of letters for him. As I mentioned there were also several guards who, like Clive, had an intense dislike for “draft dodgers. ” A couple of experiences with these guards will serve as examples. I was working on the prison dairy operation. The guard, Mr. Shepherd, in charge of the dairy operation was one of the few guards with a college education. He had a habit of making derogatory comments about draft dodging to other men working at the dairy.
These comments were not made directly to me but were made in my presence so that I could hear them.
One day a cow bolted from her milking stall and started galloping toward the door. I happened to be near the door. Mr. Shepherd yelled at me, “Shut that door, you son of a bitch.” I got the door shut and caught the cow by her halter. I then told Mr. Shepherd that I would like to talk with him. I said something like, “Mr. Shepherd, I have never spoken to you with disrespect. I cannot believe that you would like for someone to speak to you as you just did to me. I would like to ask, in the future, that you speak to me with the same respect that you expect when I speak with you. That’s really the only way I can work for you. ” Mr. Shepherd was apologetic. He may have thought that the warden would not be pleased with an account of the incident if he wrote me up for insubordination. Or he may have simply been ashamed of his behavior.
Interestingly, Mr. Shepherd did stop his harassing. I remember that we later had serious discussions together. One in particular was about an article I had read in the Christian Century magazine (to which I subscribed) written by Dr. Hornel Hart of Duke University Divinity School titled “Perfect Christ, Imperfect Jesus. ” Mr. Shepherd even asked to borrow the magazine.
When I first went to prison I fully intended, someday, to follow my father in the Methodist ministry. But my prison experience began to change this. The experience of discussing Hart’s ideas with Mr Shepherd reflects these early changes that were going on in my thinking. On May 27, 1943 1 wrote to my father, “I have read quite a few books (since being in prison)–both by religious writers and by historians. I have read several histories about other great religious movements that did not grow out of the writings of the Hebrews. I must confess that my mind has been unsettled more concerning religious belief than at any time in my life.
I had been reared in a racist culture in South Carolina. From a young age I think I knew in my heart that “white supremacy ideology” was wrong. It never occurred to me, however, that there was anything one young white person could do about it. In prison this problem weighed on my mind as the prison was segregated and I had developed close friendships with several African-Americans.
On February 7, 1944 1 wrote my dad, “The matter of going to church is becoming quite a problem to me, I fear. We go in, the whites on the right, the Negroes on the left. I have a good Negro friend. We meet each other on the way to church and begin a friendly chat. We come to the chapel and pass through the door. I look at Joe. Joe looks at me. Then we part–‘or else’–in a Christian church! I am not certain what action I should take– whether (1) to grin and bear it; (2) to simply stop going to church or (3) should a Christian first protest and then act accordingly?”
A later letter indicated that I made the decision to discontinue attending segregated church services.
On March 22, 1944 in a letter to my father, I was reflecting on my study of “Types of Religious Philosophy” by Dr. E. A. Burt. I said, “I have necessarily–and this is the only place where you may be a bit hurt–left the highway of orthodox Christianity in its doctrines and creeds about Jesus…. involving belief in the virgin birth, supernatural states, resurrection from the dead, the Trinity, etc. ” I then complained that traditional Christianity had become sidetracked by emphasizing belief-about-Jesus-and-was neglecting what-Jesus-taught-about how we should live our lives.
During this time of my incarceration, I confronted other guards on several occasions as I had Mr. Shepherd. I gradually became convinced that several of the guards had made a decision to try to make me more subservient in the guard/inmate relationship and that our relationship had now reached an impasse.
An encounter with one of these guards, whose name I no longer remember, occurred in early April of 1944. At this time I was working on the farm detail. On this particular day the inmates were spreading fertilizer by hand. There were perhaps fifteen inmates in this operation. Each inmate had a five-gallon bucket with fertilizer in it. We would broadcast the fertilizer by hand as we moved across the field in a straight line. The inmates normally carried on an animated conversation with each other as they performed this task. As near as I could tell the only limit to free speech would be critical remarks about the prison administration. Certainly, profanity and lewd jokes were standard fare.
Charlie Walker, a fellow conscientious objector, and I were in the middle of this line and were talking to each other. The guard, who would fit the general description of an uneducated, redneck southerner, suddenly called the line to halt. He came over and told me to get my ass to the far end of the line. I asked, “Why are you asking me to move?” As I remember his answer was that he was tired of hearing about “poets and authors and all that god damn draft-dodging crap.” I told him that I was sorry, but I didn’t feel our conversation warranted that kind of behavior on his part and that I would not move to the end of the line. He ordered the line to proceed with the broadcasting. But when we reached the edge of the field where the prison truck was parked he took me to the main office and charged me with insubordination. I was sentenced to either ten or fourteen days (I can’t remember which for sure) in the hole on bread and water.
With this experience, I re-evaluated my seventeen-month experiment of following Gandhi’s advice to be a model prisoner. I decided that I could no longer function under supervision of guards who were intent on trying to humiliate me.
I will try to describe the “hole” as I remember it. The hole is prison vernacular for a solitary confinement cell in which confinement is considered the ultimate form of prison punishment, at least legally. At Petersburg there were perhaps five or six hole cells joining one another. Each cell was about six feet by ten feet. These cells were located in the basement level of one of the buildings. There were no windows to these cells. Each cell had a steel bar door plus a solid steel door with a small window so that guards could check on the occupant of the cell periodically. There was also a small opening through which food could be passed to the inmate. As I remember it, there was no stool, only a small round hole in the floor, perhaps six inches in diameter. I do not remember how body wastes were flushed down this hole. There was a cold-water faucet. There was one small light bulb in the ceiling, perhaps ten feet from floor level. Otherwise, the room was completely bare.
For eight hours at night the occupant of a hole cell was given a filthy, urine stinking mattress along with a dirty army blanket. Clothing consisted of a coverall. I believe that socks were allowed but not shoes. During the time that I was in the hole, the daily food allotment was two slices of white bread. No reading material was permitted. Sitting on the cold concrete floor soon became quite uncomfortable. Prison lore had it that sitting on the concrete floor caused “piles” (hemorrhoid problems). My diagnosis was that the bread and water diet caused constipation. I started eating the bread during this stay in the hole but before my time was up I had decided that it was better not to eat the bread but to drink a lot of water.
It was not unusual for inmates to suffer minor nervous breakdowns in the hole. While I was at Petersburg one inmate committed suicide in the hole. The prison grapevine reported that this inmate had used his coverall to hang himself, using a bar in the door to anchor one leg of the coverall and the other leg around his neck.
I used my time in the hole to exercise, recite Bible verses, sing songs and meditate. I remember one time in the middle of the night the guard shone his flashlight into my cell. I was sitting cross legged on the mattress meditating. He played the light on me for perhaps a minute. I tried to ignore the light and continue with my meditation. Perhaps half an hour later the guard came back with his flashlight and found me in the same position. He opened the steel door and said with obvious anxiety, “Hey, John, are you OK?” I think his concern was genuine. I told him that I was meditating and assured him I was OK.
I think I was blessed with a temperament which handled the hole experience with a minimum of mental anxiety. The physical aspect was a bit more stressful.
It just happened, about this time, my brother Bob returned home for a short visit while his ship was in port for repairs or some similar circumstance. The family decided to visit me while Bob was home. I think my apprehension was shared by other family members that we might never be together again. Bob was an officer on a troop transport ship and commanded a group of beach landing boats whenever they were trying to establish a beachhead.
Bob had also visited me shortly after the allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942. He told me then that if he had to go through many more operations like that he thought his chance of survival was quite low. I worried a great deal about his welfare.
Even though Bob and I chose different paths during the war, we always respected each other’s convictions and never let our differences block our love for each other. A typical example of this is a quote from a letter I wrote my dad on January 31, 1944, “Had a note from Bob last night. The last paragraph of his letter reads, ‘I was thinking that if you wanted to take a correspondence course or two from some university it might be very practical. It would give me worlds of pleasure to foot the bill.’ Sure is swell to have a brother like that, isn’t it?”
At any rate, the family showed up for this visit just a few days after I had been released from the hole. I felt I was in great spirits, but my father’s diary reads, “Saw John after rude treatment by officials and it was shocking. Looked like a ghost. The warden threw him in ‘the hole’ on bread and water just after a spell of flu and he has lost a lot of weight. Lips thin and bloodless. Did not want me to protest because it would only make it harder for him. I must find a way to do it. They have other ways to kill besides shooting it seems. I felt as if I was attending a funeral. “
In reading my father’s diaries after his death, I found that he had several communications with Walter Longstreth about my treatment. Walter apparently made contacts with some official in Washington. My father’s diary of April 27, 1944 reads, “Letter from Longstreth. Seems Washington has put a bit of pressure in John’s case by asking report of warden. Expect warden to make a fair case for himself. “
My father never mentioned his contact with Longstreth to me but there was an interesting development shortly after this. At the time I suspected that there might be a connection between this development and my father’s visit. The prison grapevine had it that an official from the Bureau of Prisons had visited Petersburg to check out the hole conditions. As a result of this visit, a change was made in the food allotment for inmates in the hole. My memory is that each inmate, in the hole, was now to receive a minimum of 1500 calories a day, including bread and vegetables with meat at least once daily.
After reading my father’s diary I strongly suspect that there was indeed a connection between my hole experience, Dad’s visit and Walter Longstreth’s getting Washington to investigate the matter. 1500 calories was a big improvement over two slices of white bread!
Following my first hole experience I had several discussions, at his request, with the warden, Mr. Nicholson. My memory is that Nicholson had a degree in penology. I had studied some articles and perhaps a book or two on penology. So our discussions were, at least to some degree, about problems connected with operating a prison. I had the feeling that Mr. Nicholson had taken a personal interest in me and was sincerely trying to figure out some way to keep me out of the hole while at the same time not being openly critical of his guard staff when I objected to their behavior. He frankly discussed with me the problem of staffing the prison with the manpower shortage, caused by the war, and admitted that there were guards who were seriously lacking in both education and professional training.
After being released from the hole, I returned to the farm detail for a short period of time. I am unable to reconstruct, from the letters I have, the actual time sequence but I believe that sometime shortly after the hole experience in April, I was again sentenced to either a five day or a seven day period in the hole for refusing to work. Although I now have no clear memory of the specific incident of work refusal, I believe this was related to the introduction of a war-related industry into the prison.
My letters do reveal a concern I had because the prison was being drawn into mobilization for the war effort with some men working in the war industry and the other men working the farm and dairy to feed them. The new industry was to make rope ladder nets. These nets would be used by soldiers to climb down the sides of troop transport ships to the smaller beach landing boats used to establish beachheads during an invasion attempt. In a letter to my dad I said that I could not cooperate with a totalitarian society–prison– geared to war.
I remember that Mr. Nicholson came to visit me during this second hole experience. I doubt that he had ever visited an inmate in the hole before. When the door was opened and I saw Mr. Nicholson standing there, I remember saying, “Oh, it’s good to see you Mr. Nicholson. Did you bring your buggy whip along?” Mr. Nicholson was friendly, but his primary objective was to try to figure some solution to the impasse between me and his “draft dodger” prejudiced guards.
While these events were happening in my prison life, I was also struggling with what to do about my relationship to the Methodist Church. The church at its General Conference had rescinded its long standing statement against war and its equally strong support of conscientious objection. A number of Methodist C.O. s–including some of my good friends–left the church, and I was troubled. On May 22, 1944 1 wrote my friend and fellow pacifist, Dot Kirkley, with whom I corresponded, “But if you believe as I do now that there is still a strong anti-war movement stirring in the Methodist consciousness, then it seems to me that it is wise to hold out until you are pretty sure there are no possibilities left (to work within the church). ”
On May 15, 1944, I had written my dad, “I read ‘Who Are The Friends’ by William Hubbel. I find that I come closer to being a Friend (Quaker) in spirit than I am to being a Methodist. However, like you, for the time being, I intend to work within the Methodist Church. ”
I believe that following my second hole experience, I was confined to segregation for 30 days. I suspect that I continued to refuse to work because of the war industry. I am unable to reconstruct this from my letters and am making some logical guesses. When I returned to population from segregation, I was still determined not to cooperate.
This time I was surprised by a strategic move on the part of Mr Nicholson. It was obvious that all of the guards had instructions to ignore me. For at least several days I refused to stand by my bed for “body counts. ” I refused to line up for body count at meal time. I refused to report to my farm detail for work. In fact, I refused to observe any prison rule. The amazing thing was that I had a free run of the prison compound and all the guards totally ignored my non-cooperation.
Within a few days the prison grapevine had it that the prison administration was giving me special treatment. There was the growing suspicion, planted, I think, by an inmate “stooge, ” that I was being groomed to be a “stooge,” if indeed the agreements had not already been made. (A “stooge” is an inmate who provides the prison administration with inside information about prison population in return for special favors). Stooges are not popular with the rest of the prison population.
To counter this misconception, I printed a number of signs on regular typewriting paper. The signs read “BUCK wHOLE SYSTEM.” The printed signs looked, at first glance, as though they said, “Buck the Hole System,” but I inserted the small “w” in front of HOLE to reflect my unhappiness with the “whole system. ” I put these signs up on the bulletin board of the building where we slept, on the mess hall bulletin board and other strategic places throughout the prison compound. When a guard would tear a sign down I would post another at the next opportunity. My fellow inmates, of course, were completely aware of what was going on and were quickly convinced that I was no stooge.
While this minor battle was going on between Mr. Nicholson and me, Mr. Nicholson called me to his office. He had an unusual offer. He told me he had been wanting a rock wall around his home, which was just a few hundred yards outside the prison compound. He said if I would report to his house each morning, I could work around his house without having any guard supervision. He would arrange to have rocks and mortar available in case I might like to build a rock wall. It was during this visit that Mr Nicholson told me, “You know, John, I would like to have a prison full of inmates like you. But just one of you is causing me pure hell. ‘
I believe Mr. Nicholson was sincere in believing his offer was a way out of the impasse we had reached and that it was in my best interest. But anyone who has been an inmate and knows the resentment with which “stooges” are held, would recognize that the plan was pregnant with problems. Anyway, I didn’t want special treatment.
I believe it was during this period of time I was approached by two of my C.O. friends– Bob Swink and Billy Hildreth. They had decided to go on work strike. They invited me to join them in preparing a work strike statement. I had already decided I could no longer work in prison under prevailing conditions, so I agreed to join them in the strike. We prepared a statement detailing the various reasons for the work strike. As I recall, we mentioned the war industry, racial segregation, the inhumanity of the hole, the unprofessional behavior of certain guards and probably several other issues which have gone out of my memory.
On June 14, 1944 we mailed a copy of the statement to James Bennett, Director of the Bureau of Prisons. We also provided the Petersburg administration with a copy. We were to begin our work strike June 15. The prison censors returned the copy we tried to mail to Bennett. When the three of us began work strike on June 15, Mr. Nicholson concluded his efforts to find a way to keep me in population.
Billy and I were placed in adjoining isolation cells in the administration building. Bob was placed in an isolation cell in another building, the same building in which the hole was located. We were given adequate food. I was allowed a Bible for reading material. I memorized the 5th, 6th and 7th chapters of Matthew, the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians and various other parts of the Bible. Billy and I could communicate with each other by shouting through a thick wall which separated our cells. I thought it especially interesting that we seemed to develop a level of telepathic communication–one of us would shout something that the other had on his mind–not an uncommon occurrence. But we had no way of communicating with Bob.
Apparently I wrote my father about this time that I had decided to become a Socialist. He had written a letter back questioning whether I was making this decision with insufficient study. I wrote him on August l, 1944, “About socialism– sorry I gave you the impression that I had read only one book on the subject. What I intended to say was ‘The Case For Socialism’ has contributed most to my becoming a socialist. As a matter of fact, I have put in quite a few hours in the study of economic systems since my incarceration… .1 certainly intend to continue an unbiased study of economics. If I find a system which meets contemporary demands more effectively than socialism, believe me, I will waste no time in changing. ” (Years later I concluded that what is in people’s hearts–their awareness of the fundamental kinship of all humankind–is much more important for world peace than is any particular economic system).
I noted in a letter to my father dated August 7, that I saw Bob Swink through my cell window. I was surprised that Bob was now in population with the other inmates. I knew that Bob was having a rough time in isolation. His wife was expecting a baby about this time which, I am sure, was a worry. Mr. Nicholson visited me and explained that Bob had sort of gone berserk. He had stuffed a roll of toilet paper in the stool in his cell, had opened the flush valve and flooded a whole floor of the building before any one figured how to turn the water off. Following this episode, Bob had been convinced to discontinue the strike.
When Mr Nicholson was visiting with me about Bob I told him that the building flooding incident would not have happened if they had not separated Bob from Billy and me. He agreed and said he figured if Billy and I were separated that Billy would also discontinue the strike. I think Mr. Nicholson thought that I had persuaded Bob and Billy to go on strike with me which was not the case at all.
Early in August I was transferred from Petersburg to Ashland, Kentucky. I later learned Billy had agreed to end work strike. I was told that an agreement had been reached in which both Bob and Billy would be transferred to another institution. My memory is that the other institution was for juvenile offenders. Bob and Billy were to be counselors or “big brothers” to the young offenders. I do not remember ever confirming these details with either Bob or Billy after I got out of prison. The facts may be a bit muddled.
I suspect that my transfer to Ashland was due to a couple of calculated guesses on the part of Mr. Nicholson. I think he really cared about me and was concerned about having me locked up in an isolation cell. Perhaps he thought a change in environment to a prison with no war-industry would provide me an opportunity to go off work strike without “losing face. ” But I also remembered his statement that if Billy and I were separated that Billy would probably discontinue his work strike. I didn’t like that kind of psychological manipulation.
I was disappointed to learn when I recently read my father’s diaries that Director Bennett had also suggested to my father that Ashland was a prison for mentally disturbed inmates.
While it is possible that the chief medical officer at Ashland may have been a psychiatrist, I have no memory of any psychiatric type discussion with him. And it was simply not true I feel that Bennett’s that Ashland was a prison for “mentally disturbed inmates. ” insinuation that I was being sent to Ashland for psychiatric reasons was most unkind. My father was worried enough about my physical well-being without worrying that I might be becoming mentally unbalanced.
When I was transferred to Ashland, we arrived in the late evening. I was placed in a segregation cell. Early the next morning a guard opened the gate to the tier of cells where I was and called out, “Attention.” This was the signal for each inmate to stand at attention beside his bunk while the guard completed a body count. When the guard reached my cell I was seated on my bunk The guard said, “Griffith, don’t you know you are supposed to be at attention for body count?” I replied, “Yes, I am aware of the rules and I don’t mean any disrespect to you, but I have been refusing to cooperate with the penal system for several months now and have no intention of cooperating now. ” Normally this response would result in the inmate being sentenced to the hole. But the guard made no issue of my non-cooperation and proceeded with his body count. I soon discovered that the Ashland administration had decided not to try to force me to conform.
Although I was confined to a segregated cell I was taken to the mess hall for meals and was able to visit other C.O’.s during meal time. Not long after my arrival at Ashland, I suddenly was joined by four or five other C.O.’s who had gone on work strike to protest treatment of Bayard Rustin–a well-known African-American peace activist in the Ashland prison. Bayard had been sentenced to the hole for some alleged infraction of prison rules. When these men were placed in the same cell tier, my recollection is that our meals were brought to us and that I no longer went to the mess hall for meals. Before long, we were allowed, as a group, to go to an outside segregated area for perhaps 30 minutes of exercise each day. On the whole I found the environment at Ashland to be a considerable improvement over Petersburg.
Some months before, while still at Petersburg, I had refused to apply for parole. The parole papers stated, among other things, that the parolee would not break any laws while on parole. As a non-registrant I fully expected when I left prison to walk out the front door without a draft card, thus breaking the existing draft law. I had no intention of signing a paper which would bind me to obeying that law. So I had been through the process of explaining all this to Petersburg prison officials.
But now my “conditional release” date was coming up on November 2, 1944–two years after being sentenced When asked about requesting “conditional release,” I explained to the Ashland officials my objections to the terms of the release. I figured the matter was settled and that I would remain at Ashland until my thirty month sentence was up on May 2, 1945.
However, the morning of November 2 a burly guard came for me. He took me to a small room with table and chair; there were papers on the table. I do not remember the exact conversation, but it was obvious that this guard had orders to try to bully me into signing the conditional release papers. He swore at me, made threatening remarks and told me to “sign those god damn papers.” I told him, as politely as I could, that I had no intention of signing the papers. I said that if the prison officials wanted to get rid of me all they had to do was open the front door and let me out. But I would not agree to any conditions for my release.
The guard took me to the clothing room where I was given a cheap suit of clothes. My personal belongings were given to me in a cloth bag. The guard then took me to the train station and handed me a ticket to Gaffney, SC, where my family now lived. He told me that he hoped to never see me again. I told him the feeling was mutual.
A few days after I arrived home a parole officer showed up at the house with a draft card and a sheet of instructions on the conditions of my release. I told him I had just served two years in prison for not registering and would not accept the draft card. I also told him I had refused to sign any conditional release papers at Ashland and would not be bound by any conditions that might be on the sheet of instructions he wanted to give me. The parole officer then said I would be arrested for breaking conditional release. I answered that if he would just give me a few minutes to pack my toothbrush, razor and a few personal belongings I was ready to go My poor dad and mom were silently observing this exchange with considerable anxiety. But then the parole officer left, and I never heard from another parole official.
There is one final ironic twist to my story. I think I first voted when Adlai Stevenson was running for president in 1952. After that I voted regularly in all elections. I was also quite active, politically, in efforts to elect several peace type candidates.
I think it must have been in the summer of 1978 that I was called for jury duty in Kansas City, Missouri, where I now live. This is a rather large court system and there must have been a couple hundred prospective jurors in the large courtroom used for initial screening of jurors. The judge asked those in the room to raise their hand if the answer to any question he asked was affirmative. One of the questions he asked was, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” I raised my hand and was called to the bench. I explained my felony conviction and the judge said, “Mr Griffth, I don’t understand why you are here. Our jury selection is taken from voter registration records and if you are a felon you cannot legally vote and therefore should not be on the voter registration record. ” I told the judge I had been voting for many years and had never had any trouble in being able to vote. He told me he didn’t know what he would have to do about my situation and for me to take my seat again.
I was actually called to serve on a jury the next day. (A friend of mine who was a judge said later he couldn’t understand a judge allowing me to serve on a jury when I hadn’t been pardoned for a felony). But the judge warned me, “Mr Griffth, I have informed you that you cannot legally vote and if, in the future, I discover you have continued to vote I will have to press charges against you.”
Jimmy Carter was president. I knew he had friendly connections with Koininia Farm people in Georgia and was likely sympathetic to individual pacifists even if he did not hold the pacifist position himself I wanted to continue to participate in the political process, so I decided to apply to President Carter for a presidential pardon. I applied for the pardon July 8, 1978.
Months passed and the only word I heard about my application were random reports from professional associates from previous years in Iowa. These people had been visited by the FBI for character reference checks on me.. Typically my former business associates would ask, “What’s up, John? Are you applying for a job with the FBI?” Or, “Are you applying for a job with the government which requires a security clearance?” The FBI also contacted some of my neighbors, as well as officials of the company where I worked. And then another dry spell followed with no word on my pardon application.
Ronald Reagan defeated Carter in the election of November 1980. And still no word on my application. With the turn in events at the political level, I decided that I might as well put the application out of my mind. Then late in December 1981, I received in the mail a presidential pardon from President Reagan–the crowned prince of the military-industrial complex–the old Gipper himself. Such is life! And I have been voting ever since.
When first asked to submit my story about war resistance during World War Il, I was reluctant to do it. Censorship, particularly at Petersburg, was very strict. It was impossible to write letters about what was going on in prison. As one example, after the work strike statement addressed to the Director of the Bureau of Prisons was returned by the Petersburg censor, I tried to hide a copy in my Bible. I thought perhaps the censor would not check my Bible closely when I left prison. No such luck. When I was transferred to Ashland, the Petersburg prison censor went through my belongings and removed the statement. So, because of the lack of good data, I thought I might not be able to reconstruct events in proper sequence with historical accuracy.
Fortunately, both my father and my friend, Dot Kirkley, saved the letters I had written from prison. After re-reading these letters, as well as my father’s diary entries, and my own diary for the period July 7, 1942 to November 17, 1942, I have felt some confidence in telling the story with at least an impressionistic resemblance to history. (My diary was taken from me when I entered Petersburg.)
The other cause of apprehension is that I felt that it would be almost impossible to tell the story, in such a short paper, and maintain a good balance between accounts of the good times and the bad times. I think this apprehension has been validated. I am sure the story seems more dramatic, even confrontational, than it actually was. There were months of normal relationships, mostly good, some quite tender, which are not adequately reflected in this account. Also, I am well aware that what little I may have suffered in prison is totally insignificant compared with the 15 million military fatalities, the 25 million civilian fatalities and the unknown additional millions who survived but were permanently scarred by the horrible conflict of World War Il. It was a terribly tragic time when most people, regardless of nationality, did what they thought they had to do.
If the reader keeps this in mind, the paper may have value in conveying something of what one war resister experienced during World War Il. I hope this is the case.
Perhaps a closing word is warranted about how, in retrospect, I see my act of non- cooperation during World War Il. I now believe that it was just one response to the promptings of human consciousness which we all share. I have deliberately not used the phrase my consciousness. With the passing of years, the distinction between my consciousness and human consciousness has become more and more elusive. We are all connected. I believe that human consciousness intuitively knows that it is wrong for human beings to kill each other. At this stage in the human story, the cultural conditioning of most humans is such that the apparent necessity to sometimes kill overrides the intuitive feeling that it is wrong. Due to a complex combination of circumstances, my own cultural conditioning was slightly different and human consciousness, as expressed through my perception, had to protest the rush to worldwide slaughter. My faith is that human consciousness is becoming more and more aware of the kinship of all humankind and that someday this awareness will, for most people, be stronger than the feeling that circumstances may require killing. We, together, will then develop an alternative to war.
After prison I attended, and graduated from, William Penn College in Oskaloosa, Iowa. Cecil Hinshaw, a radical young Quaker educator, was president. Cecil promoted an interracial faculty and student body, democratic community government, simplicity and the Quaker peace testimony. I was happy there. It was good to have a respite from protesting. While at Penn, Reva Standing, a birthright Friend, (and now my beloved companion for forty nine years) and I exchanged marriage vows. Our most noteworthy achievement has been to raise four sons, each in his own way becoming a productive and caring member of the human family. Professionally I was involved in the cooperative movement–which I consider the most peace-oriented of the various economic systems–until my retirement in 1985. As of the spring of 1996, Reva and I continue to be active in our Quaker community. And we continue to work for peace and justice in the world community.
By John Griffith
I made the following statement in Federal Court in Columbia, SC on November 2, 1942. I observed my twentieth birthday the following month. Historically, there were a few South Carolinians who, in other wars, and currently in World War II, had been imprisoned for refusal to serve in the military. However, they were imprisoned only after they had registered and been denied exemption to military service. I believe that I was the first South Carolinian who publicly challenged conscription by refusal to register.
Leading up to my court appearance I drafted several rather long statements attempting to explain my action. But my Quaker attorney, Walter Longstreth, advised that the statement should be concise. He felt that the judge might not allow me to make any statement in court and would probably stop me from making a lengthy statement even if he permitted me to speak. The following statement represents my attempt to be as concise as possible. In retrospect, I am convinced it was a wise move. The judge permitted me to make the whole statement. After I had pleaded guilty and made my statement, Walter Longstreth asked the judge to pass the minimum sentence of a year and a day. In explaining why he was sentencing me to 30 months in federal prison the judge observed that my statement might be motivated by a desire to influence others to do the same and “if his advice were followed the world would be in a terrible condition.”
I do not see the statement as important because I made it. I think its importance, if any, is in that it reflects a growing uneasiness in human consciousness with the idea that state-sanctioned killing of fellow human beings is acceptable human behavior. I cannot convey how repulsive that concept was to my conscience. But I am sure that many people contributed to that repulsiveness being implanted in my conscience – Jesus, Gandhi, my father and a number of writers who had previously questioned war as a method of solving problems. So, I do not lay claim to the position as being original in any way. It was just part of the human response to war as nurtured in my consciousness. In World War II that was a radical response. Fewer than 90 men in the United State were imprisoned for refusing to register for conscription. In contrast, by the time of the Vietnam war, refusal to register, public burning of draft cards and moving to Canada were common responses of the human consciousness to war.
If I were to make a statement today explaining refusal to be conscripted for the purpose of killing other human beings, it would no doubt be somewhat different from the statement made in 1942. For one thing, my religious thought has moved from being as “Christ centered” as it was in 1942 to a deeper appreciation of the Universality of spiritual religions. But the core of the statement still stands: war is a sacrilege against the “kingdom of heaven, the “Buddha Mind.” the TAO. Human beings are meant to be better. Jesus and many saints of other religious traditions condemned violence on a personal level. Gandhi showed how non-violence could be organized on a national level to resist evil. Our human task is to further develop what Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other non-violent “visionaries” have already demonstrated – the power of non-violence. The core of the statement continues to reflect my deepest conviction, so I do not hesitate, in 2010, to stand by the 1942 statement.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA : U.S.D.C. for E.D. of S.C.
– vs. – : Sitting at Columbia
John H. Griffith : Refusal to register under the Selective Training & Service Act
I do not care to argue the righteousness of my position, neither do I desire to defend it with rationalities. There are certain convictions so real that they go deeper than rationalities. I must live by these convictions if I am to live by the dictates of my highest spiritual being, not losing my faith in God. The act of following any other dictates would not only be a denial of the Democracy I love, but to me an outright denial that the God I love is Supreme.
The following points are only brief basic statements of my convictions.
- I cannot reconcile the way of war with the way of Christ, nor am I free to support any law which does not give the individual freedom in deciding what God would have him do, especially when faced with the problem of killing his fellowmen.
- There is another method which is Christian, efficient, and less costly by which we may settle international, political, social and economic problems. It is the way taught by Jesus, and I feel that sooner or later the people of the world must adopt this method if a durable peace is to be realized. A modern example of the practical application of this method is found in India’s fight for freedom under the leadership of Mohandas K. Gandhi.
- I feel that, at present at least, my greatest contribution toward the ultimate adoption of the non-violent method, and the abolishment of international violence, is to refuse to comply with the system of violence at its beginning, namely registration for compulsory service.
- Though at present conscientious objectors to war constitute a small minority, I feel that in not complying with the wishes of the majority I am one more protest against man’s inhumanity to man. For that I will accept cheerfully, and without hate, any penalty imposed by this court.
November 2, 1942 John H. Griffith