I Refuse to Kill: My Path to Nonviolent Action in the 1960s

By Francesco Da Vinci. Sunbury Press, 2021. 294 pages. $34.95/hardcover; $9.99/eBook.

I Refuse to Kill is an engaging memoir about a young man’s journey attempting to be classified as a conscientious objector (CO) during the Vietnam War. It is a story of courage and integrity, of progressing from protester to peace activist. In telling his story, the author’s mission is to honor COs, past, present, and future.

As a young teenager, Francesco Da Vinci and his friend Jerry were inspired by President Kennedy’s call to his generation to serve their country. Jerry decided on a life in the military while Francesco recognized his need to oppose violence in all its forms. Their mutual respect through the years is an inspiration for us today.

The book traces some early influences on Da Vinci’s life. The nonviolent teachings of Mohandas Gandhi, Albert Einstein, Cesar Chavez, and Martin Luther King Jr. inspired him. When he visited Morocco with his family, he was appalled at seeing children begging in the streets. How are children allowed to suffer like that? This led him to question his own country’s budget priorities. When President Kennedy died, Da Vinci realized that progress does not come automatically; we must make it happen.

At 18, he reluctantly registered for the draft. He applied to be classified as a CO, but when he reported that he had no conventional religious belief, he was turned down. He told the draft board he was guided by “a non-religious but spiritual philosophy—a set of ethics that countered violence and racial injustice with nonviolent action.” They didn’t buy it. The book outlines his ongoing attempts to be reclassified as a CO, people’s often negative reaction to his decision, and ways he lived out his commitment to peace and nonviolence.

What I found most interesting in Da Vinci’s story was his refusal to compromise. He said that more than avoiding the draft, he wanted to stand against the war. As a college student, he refused a student deferment. A doctor noted a slight curvature in his spine and offered to write a letter certifying that he was unfit for service; he refused. Of course, he could have gone to Canada. His parents were frustrated with him; his girlfriend/wife almost left him several times, and eight different lawyers threw up their hands and said there was nothing they could do for him. I, too, would have been frustrated with his decisions. However, his refusal to compromise led him to realize that protest wasn’t enough; he needed to work actively for peace. So he went to work with Cesar Chavez during the lettuce boycott, picketing grocery stores in support of agricultural workers. He helped organize a nonviolent moratorium: a day off work to march for peace in Vietnam. Interestingly, he organized a peace ceremony to honor Vietnam vets for risking their lives. As he approached the time when he was likely to go to prison, he formed a group called Nonviolent Action. They dispensed leaflets at induction calls, telling the young men their rights and giving them the names of draft lawyers willing to counsel them for free. Starting with 12 volunteers, the group grew to more than 100 and led a number of successful peace demonstrations. One of their demonstrations actually made the network evening news!

Throughout the book, we wonder whether Da Vinci will go to prison. Finally, we learn that he did not. His last allowable appeal took him to his twenty-sixth birthday, at which time he was no longer able to be drafted.

When I received this book to review, I wondered why a man in his 70s would write about his struggles with the draft, which was abolished in 1973, two years after his story ends. I found that the book serves as a history lesson about a tumultuous part of this nation’s history, but more importantly, it can help Friends think through where we stand on our traditional peace testimony. Although the draft was abolished nearly 50 years ago, many young Friends today are encouraged to write a statement of their beliefs with regard to its possible reinstatement. They will find this book both accessible and provocative. Finally, Da Vinci’s story may inspire us to make sacrifices for the greater good.

Patience A. Schenck is a member of Annapolis (Md.) Meeting and a resident of Friends House in Sandy Spring, Md., where she clerks the Diversity Committee. She takes Friends’ peace testimony very seriously while not always seeing how it can apply.

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