Hundreds of thousands of people rallied in Washington, D.C. on Saturday to express outrage at recent mass shootings in American schools, and to push Congress to enact stricter gun laws. But for many students in the U.S.—and especially students of color—gun violence at school isn’t the only problem. Rather, it’s the violence they face regularly in their homes and yards, in their neighborhoods and communities.
There hasn’t yet been a worldwide march focused on that kind of violence—so they made this one their own.
“I came all the way from Chicago to help change the violence that’s going on with school shootings,” said 16-year-old Kaiseona Lockhart. “And to let everyone know that there’s violence in Chicago.” Lockhart, who lives in Englewood, on Chicago’s south side, recently lost an uncle to gun violence. She’s part of a violence-prevention youth group affiliated with St. Sabina Church. “They trying to put us against each other. They’re trying to say that mass shootings and shootings, they don’t connect, but in reality, they both happen by a gun. We both want to change that.”
In the past month, the gun-control movement has found its voice in a ragtag group of eloquent, Twitter-savvy teenagers from suburban Florida. They survived the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School this past Valentine’s Day that killed 17 of their peers and teachers and have since appeared on countless cable-news segments and magazine covers calling for stricter gun legislation.
Each of the recent mass shootings in the U.S. have followed a similar pattern—after the killings, there’s a nationwide pang of sadness, a hot flash of anger; but then, after several days of thoughts and prayer and Facebook debates, the conversation dies down. This one, though, seems to have had more staying power. That has a lot to do with the Parkland students themselves. “They’re photogenic and they’re loved by the media. They have a real message,” said David Hemenway, an economist and a professor of health policy at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, in an interview on Friday. “They were born in the Columbine-era, so their whole lives…they have to be trained to protect themselves against mass-killings. It’s crazy.”
But mass shootings, we know by now, are only a small fraction of total gun deaths in the United States. Roughly 1,077 people have been killed in mass shootings since 1966—176 of them children and teenagers. In 2017 alone, Chicago had nearly 3,000 shooting incidents, and 3,457 shooting victims. Between 2006 and 2015, more than 14,500 people were shot in Philadelphia, a rate of one shooting every six hours. About 20 percent of firearm homicides occur in the country’s 25 largest cities. And within cities, the Centers for Disease Control found that black Americans are, on average, eight times more likely to be killed by guns than white Americans.
Black Lives Matter and other groups have been advocating for stricter gun laws similar to those the marchers are demanding for years. But one of the reasons the march has gotten so much attention has to do with where mass shootings typically take place. “The massacre gives the opportunity to do something about this,” Hemenway said, adding, “I think the power structure is mostly white, and when white people are killed, it gets a little more attention.”
Jamin Cash, a 15-year-old at Parkway Center City Middle College in Philadelphia, told me he thinks the attention mass shootings receives is frustrating. “Not to sound insensitive, but it’s unfair that we have to go through this every day, and then something that happens just once [in] a while gets so much attention,” he said, sighing. “But we came.” Cash and several others from his school came to the march clad in matching white t-shirts with the words “Parkway for Parkland” emblazoned on the front above a red heart. On the back of the shirts were the results of a survey his teacher, Maureen Boland, had given to him and his 120 classmates. “56% have witnessed a shooting,” one line read. “60% have lost a blood relative to gun violence. 63% regularly worry about their safety because of guns.”
Cash told me that he’s actually been shot at more than once in his neighborhood. His classmate, Courtney Daniels, another 15 year old, said she recently had a close family friend fatally shot. “I’m hoping people notice that we need to be heard too, that we’re going through the same struggles those Parkland students went through,” Daniels told me. “Youth in general, not just those kids.”
In just one month since the Parkland shooting, the gun control movement has made some small gains: The Florida state legislature passed new firearm regulations, and the federal spending bill signed by President Trump on Friday contains modest steps toward tightening the nation’s gun laws, including the Fix NICS Act, which strengthens the background-check system for gun purchases. Part of the package also includes a report clarifying that the CDC can conduct research on gun violence reversing a 22-year-old prohibition.
The March for Our Lives organizers, though, are pushing for bigger changes. They want elected officials to pass a federal ban the sale of so-called “assault weapons” like the AR-15s used in recent mass shootings in Parkland and Las Vegas, and prohibit the sale of high-capacity magazines. While legislation like that might have prevented some mass shootings, those two proposals wouldn’t necessarily be top priority for reducing gun violence in urban areas, like Chicago or Philadelphia. After all, Cook County already has a ban assault weapons; semi-automatic handguns are the kind of weapon most commonly used in shootings.
The final item on the march organizers’ petition, though, could potentially reduce gun violence substantially. The organizers want legislators to require anyone purchasing a gun privately—through an individual exchange or a gunshow—to undergo a background check. Because so many guns are purchased privately by individuals and brought into Chicago from places with more lax gun laws like Indiana, experts say universal background checks could actually make a difference in reducing gun violence in cities. “This is an opportunity to get laws which can help everybody,” Hemenway said. “This is not, ‘Oh, let’s just try to protect white kids in white high schools and white areas.’ No, this provides the opportunity to really do something, to try to reduce gun trafficking.”
I watched the march on a jumbotron with Cash, Daniels, and the students from Philly under a cluster of magnolia trees near the rally site. One of the students, another ninth-grader named Brandon Palmer, had told me earlier about how his mother was recently held at gunpoint at the local bank where she works. “In our neighborhoods, this is our daily life,” he explained, his white Parkway for Parkland t-shirt tied around his head like Rambo. Palmer told me he was angry that it took a shooting like Parkland to get people energized about gun violence.
But when I asked if he was excited to be there, his face broke into a grin. “I feel like this is gonna be in the history books in the next couple years,” he said. “The future generations are gonna be learning about this.”
On Feb. 17, 1965, Vice President Hubert Humphrey sent President Lyndon B. Johnson a memorandum stating the United States must begin an exit strategy in Vietnam: “It is always hard to cut losses. But the Johnson administration is in a stronger position to do so now that any administration in this century.” Johnson had trounced Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election — and thus, no longer had to prove he was tough on Communism — and the conflict had not developed into a full-blown war. “Nineteen sixty-five is the year of minimum political risk,” Humphrey wrote.
Humphrey gave Johnson the opportunity to change the course of history: By pulling out of Vietnam, he could have avoided opposition from his own party and seeing his vision for the Great Society jeopardized by a foreign war and his aspirations for nuclear disarmament between the Soviet Union and the United States thwarted.
Johnson ignored Humphrey’s advice. In fact, he was described as infuriated with the vice president; the day after receiving the memo, Johnson told his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, that Humphrey should “stay out of the peacekeeping and negotiating field” on Vietnam.
The president went further, and more or less banned him from the Oval Office for the remainder of 1965. Humphrey lost his responsibilities in the administration on civil rights — the subject that elevated him to the Senate in 1948, when he told the Democrats at their national convention they needed to “get out of the shadow of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”
Humphrey, who had long been the most prominent and productive liberal in the Senate — and the Democrat (other than Johnson) most responsible for the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, seemingly vanished from the public eye overnight, In August 1965, the comedian and musician Tom Lehrer sang to a raucous audience, “Whatever Became of You, Hubert?”:
Whatever became of you, Hubert?
We miss you, so tell us, please:
Are you sad? Are you cross?
Are you gathering moss
While you wait for the boss to sneeze?
Vietnam destined Humphrey to a miserable four years as Johnson’s vice president. For his dissent against the war (his “disloyalty”), Humphrey suffered the brunt of Johnson’s unpredictable wrath. Humphrey’s advisers felt Johnson’s intimidating, dismissive treatment was the reason Humphrey reversed his position on Vietnam a year later: why he defended the war as a necessary fight against Communism that provided jobs, hope and prosperity to suffering Vietnamese. It was his only way back into his boss’s good graces.
Humphrey’s support for the war condemned him in history as a supporting player in the tragedy of Vietnam. The war alienated Humphrey from liberals, civil rights activists and young Americans — the same people who, for decades, had loved Humphrey for his support of racial justice, full employment and the labor movement — and ultimately cost him the presidency in 1968. Voters thought Humphrey meant continued war, while Richard Nixon promised “an honorable end to the war in Vietnam.”
But given what we now know the history of the Vietnam War after 1968, Hubert Humphrey — both his life and political career — deserves re-examination. Humphrey forces us to consider the history that might have been: the possibility of ending the Vietnam War before 1973, an expansion of the Great Society in the 1970s, a different America. Without Vietnam (and his being Johnson’s vice president), Humphrey might have won in 1968. The country — and the world — would be drastically different.
Hubert Humphrey arrived in the Senate in 1949 as a liberal in an illiberal institution. Southerners held the reins of power in Congress, and they hated Humphrey for his opposition to Jim Crow segregation and “that speech” at the Democratic National Convention.
While he was determined in his quest for social justice, his legislation often stalled in committee. He gravitated toward the one man who could help him: Lyndon Johnson. By 1954, Johnson needed Humphrey too — Johnson had become Senate majority leader and wanted liberals to fall behind his leadership; Johnson concluded Humphrey was the brightest and most pragmatic of them. It was a devil’s bargain: Johnson helped Humphrey with his relationships with Southerners, and Humphrey vowed to keep the liberals in line.
The partnership between Johnson and Humphrey was as close as that of two antagonists could be. When Johnson became president in November 1963, Humphrey ensured that the Civil Rights Act overcame the Senate filibuster the following summer. Johnson recognized Humphrey’s talents as a legislator and orator (“There are so many ways I envy you,” Johnson said in 1951), and chose Humphrey as his vice president in 1964 — but not before asking Humphrey for his backing (“unswerving loyalty,” as Humphrey recalled) on all his decisions. When Mississippi civil rights activists tried to force the Democratic Party to recognize them over the state’s official, segregationist delegation at the 1964 national convention, it was Humphrey who, on Johnson’s orders, made them back down.
Once in office, Humphrey tried to keep his commitment to Johnson, but on Vietnam his convictions conflicted with his promises. Humphrey had been suspicious of American involvement in Vietnam since the mid-1950s, but became more incredulous of the war’s success after meeting with the veteran intelligence officer Edward Lansdale in 1964, who argued that a political solution to the war was possible. Humphrey sent several memos to Johnson in 1964 implying Johnson should pull back on the conflict, and that he meet with Lansdale. Johnson dismissed each one.
Then, on Feb. 7, 1965, American forces were attacked at Pleiku and nine Americans were killed. Bundy, the national security adviser, sent panicked cables to Johnson demanding the United States retaliate. When Johnson asked Humphrey his thoughts on bombing North Vietnam, Humphrey responded, “Mr. President, I don’t think we should.” Johnson ordered the bombing anyway. Then Humphrey wrote his Feb. 17 memo, and his fate was sealed for 1965.
But Johnson gave Humphrey one last chance to prove his loyalty, sending him to South Vietnam in February 1966 (almost one year to the date of his memo). On that trip, after meeting with Gen. William Westmoreland, American and Vietnamese soldiers, and South Vietnamese civilians, Humphrey convinced himself of the truth he wanted to believe: Vietnam was winnable; it was a war for democracy; it represented a global mission for peace and prosperity.
Humphrey’s adviser Thomas Hughes recalled that Humphrey returned from Vietnam “saying things that were crazy” about the virtues of the war. In a meeting of the National Security Council in June 1966, Humphrey said, “I have come around reluctantly to accepting the wider bombing program.”
For two years, Humphrey seemed to genuinely believe that Vietnam was a necessary war, that it represented a fight against global poverty and Communist tyranny. Humphrey convinced Johnson he believed this, that he had changed, and was welcomed back into Johnson’s good graces. (After Humphrey encouraged Johnson’s staff members to send the president his speeches supporting the war, Humphrey was admitted to the president’s luncheons on Vietnam.)
But as he promoted the war to the American people (his main task after 1966), Humphrey was increasingly taunted by the antiwar movement. When Humphrey emerged as the Democratic candidate in 1968 — after the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the upheaval at the Democratic National Convention — “Dump the Hump” became a common motto. Signs with slogans such as “Killer of Babies” and “Humphrey’s Johnson’s War Salesman” regularly greeted him on the campaign trail.
The protests agonized Humphrey. “All I had ever been as a liberal spokesman seemed lost, all that I had accomplished in significant programs was ignored. I felt robbed of my personal history,” he recalled.
On Sept. 30, 1968, Humphrey had enough of Johnson and his war, and in a speech in Salt Lake City he demanded a halt to the bombing. Humphrey called Johnson to warn him of the speech hours before. Johnson reacted coldly: “I take it you are not asking for my advice. You’re going to give the speech anyway.” Johnson then shunned Humphrey for the remainder of 1968 — indeed, the question remains whether Johnson favored Richard Nixon over Humphrey in the election, and whether Johnson’s hatred of Humphrey led to his loss.
But what if Humphrey had not been Johnson’s vice president — what if Humphrey remained in the Senate? What if Eugene McCarthy received the vice-presidential nomination in 1964 as he wanted? McCarthy would have become Humphrey: forced to defend America’s policy in Vietnam, and painted as a patsy for Johnson’s War. Humphrey would be the skeptic on Vietnam, and eventual vociferous critic — but also more palatable to the party establishment than McCarthy ever was. Divisions within the party would be united under a Humphrey candidacy in 1968, the wounds Vietnam opened among “New Democrats” healed by a Cold War liberal.
Humphrey could have won in 1968 under these circumstances. Would Humphrey have faced the same pressure as Nixon to end the war with “peace through honor?” Most likely, and certainly during his first term. But Humphrey would have immediately searched for a political solution to the war — for the conflict to end peacefully, and without further military commitment. Needless to say, he also would have continued to expand the Great Society, and not begin its long demolition, as Nixon did.
For these reasons, Humphrey represents the possibilities for a different history for the United States after 1968, particularly for Democrats looking today to rebuild their party and understand the mistakes of the past. Vietnam turned America’s leading liberal into a personification of liberalism’s failures. This is the tragedy of Hubert Humphrey and his Vietnam War — one that shapes Americans today.
*This was originally posted to Forbes on Sunday, Mar 11. Forbes took it down today. This is the explanation I received from the editor. Here is the original article in full:
Robert Jeffress, Pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and an avid supporter of Donald Trump, earned headlines this week for his defense of the president’s adultery with a porn star. Regarding the affair and subsequent financial payments, Jeffress explained, “Even if it’s true, it doesn’t matter.”
Such a casual attitude toward adultery and prostitution might seem odd from a guy who blamed 9/11 on America’s sinfulness. However, seen through the lens of white evangelicals’ real priorities, Jeffress’ disinterest in Trump’s sordid lifestyle makes sense. Religion is inseparable from culture, and culture is inseparable from history. Modern, white evangelicalism emerged from the interplay between race and religion in the slave states. What today we call “evangelical Christianity,” is the product of centuries of conditioning, in which religious practices were adapted to nurture a slave economy. The calloused insensitivity of modern white evangelicals was shaped by the economic and cultural priorities that forged their theology over centuries.
Many Christian movements take the title “evangelical,” including many African-American denominations. However, evangelicalism today has been coopted as a preferred description for Christians who were looking to shed an older, largely discredited title: Fundamentalist. A quick glance at a map showing concentrations of adherents and weekly church attendance reveals the evangelical movement’s center of gravity in the Old South. And among those evangelical churches, one denomination remains by far the leader in membership, theological pull, and political influence.
There is still today a Southern Baptist Church. More than a century and a half after the Civil War, and decades after the Methodists and Presbyterians reunited with their Yankee neighbors, America’s most powerful evangelical denomination remains defined, right down to the name over the door, by an 1845 split over slavery.
Southern denominations faced enormous social and political pressure from plantation owners. Public expressions of dissent on the subject of slavery in the South were not merely outlawed, they were a death sentence. Baptist ministers who rejected slavery, like South Carolina’s William Henry Brisbane, were forced to flee to the North. Otherwise, they would end up like Methodist minister Anthony Bewley, who was lynched in Texas in 1860, his bones left exposed at local store to be played with by children. Whiteness offered protection from many of the South’s cruelties, but that protection stopped at the subject of race. No one who dared speak truth to power on the subject of slavery, or later Jim Crow, could expect protection.
Generation after generation, Southern pastors adapted their theology to thrive under a terrorist state. Principled critics were exiled or murdered, leaving voices of dissent few and scattered. Southern Christianity evolved in strange directions under ever-increasing isolation. Preachers learned to tailor their message to protect themselves. If all you knew about Christianity came from a close reading of the New Testament, you’d expect that Christians would be hostile to wealth, emphatic in protection of justice, sympathetic to the point of personal pain toward the sick, persecuted and the migrant, and almost socialist in their economic practices. None of these consistent Christian themes served the interests of slave owners, so pastors could either abandon them, obscure them, or flee.
What developed in the South was a theology carefully tailored to meet the needs of a slave state. Biblical emphasis on social justice was rendered miraculously invisible. A book constructed around the central metaphor of slaves finding their freedom was reinterpreted. Messages which might have questioned the inherent superiority of the white race, constrained the authority of property owners, or inspired some interest in the poor or less fortunate could not be taught from a pulpit. Any Christian suggestion of social justice was carefully and safely relegated to “the sweet by and by” where all would be made right at no cost to white worshippers. In the forge of slavery and Jim Crow, a Christian message of courage, love, compassion, and service to others was burned away.
Stripped of its compassion and integrity, little remained of the Christian message. What survived was a perverse emphasis on sexual purity as the sole expression of righteousness, along with a creepy obsession with the unquestionable sexual authority of white men. In a culture where race defined one’s claim to basic humanity, women took on a special religious interest. Christianity’s historic emphasis on sexual purity as a form of ascetic self-denial was transformed into an obsession with women and sex. For Southerners, righteousness had little meaning beyond sex, and sexual mores had far less importance for men than for women. Guarding women’s sexual purity meant guarding the purity of the white race. There was no higher moral demand.
Changes brought by the Civil War only heightened the need to protect white racial superiority. Churches were the lynchpin of Jim Crow. By the time the Civil Rights movement gained force in the South, Dallas’ First Baptist Church, where Jeffress is the pastor today, was a bulwark of segregation and white supremacy. As the wider culture nationally has struggled to free itself from the burdens of racism, white evangelicals have fought this development while the violence escalated. What happened to ministers who resisted slavery happened again to those who resisted segregation. White Episcopal Seminary student, Jonathan Daniels, went to Alabama in 1965 to support voting rights protests. After being released from jail, he was murdered by an off-duty sheriff’s deputy, who was acquitted by a jury. Dozens of white activists joined the innumerable black Americans murdered fighting for civil rights in the 60’s, but very few of them were Southern.
White Evangelical Christians opposed desegregation tooth and nail. Where pressed, they made cheap, cosmetic compromises, like Billy Graham’s concession to allow black worshipers at his crusades. Graham never made any difficult statements on race, never appeared on stage with his “black friend” Martin Luther King after 1957, and he never marched with King. When King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech,” Graham responded with this passive-aggressive gem of Southern theology, “Only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children.” For white Southern evangelicals, justice and compassion belong only to the dead.
Churches like First Baptist in Dallas did not become stalwart defenders of segregation by accident. Like the wider white evangelical movement, it was then and remains today an obstacle to Christian notions of social justice thanks to a long, dismal heritage. There is no changing the white evangelical movement without a wholesale reconsideration of their theology. No sign of such a reckoning is apparent.
Those waiting to see the bottom of white evangelical cruelty have little source of optimism. Men like Pastor Jeffress can dismiss Trump’s racist abuses as easily as they dismiss his fondness for porn stars. When asked about Trump’s treatment of immigrants, Jeffress shared these comments:
Solving DACA without strengthening borders ignores the teachings of the Bible. In fact, Christians who support open borders, or blanket amnesty, are cherry-picking Scriptures to suit their own agendas.
For those unfamiliar with Christian scriptures, it might helpful to point out what Jesus reportedly said about this subject, and about the wider question of our compassion for the poor and the suffering:
Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.
What did Jesus say about abortion, the favorite subject of Jeffress and the rest of the evangelical movement? Nothing. What does the Bible say about abortion, a practice as old as civilization? Nothing. Not one word. The Bible’s exhortations to compassion for immigrants and the poor stretch long enough to comprise a sizeable book of their own, but no matter. White evangelicals will not let their political ambitions be constrained by something as pliable as scripture.
Why is the religious right obsessed with subjects like abortion while unmoved by the plight of immigrants, minorities, the poor, the uninsured, and those slaughtered in pointless gun violence? No white man has ever been denied an abortion. Few if any white men are affected by the deportation of migrants. White men are not kept from attending college by laws persecuting Dreamers. White evangelical Christianity has a bottomless well of compassion for the interests of straight white men, and not a drop to be spared for anyone else at their expense. The cruelty of white evangelical churches in politics, and in their treatment of their own gay or minority parishioners, is no accident. It is an institution born in slavery, tuned to serve the needs of Jim Crow, and entirely unwilling to confront either of those realities.
Men like Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy group, are trying to reform the Southern Baptist church in increments, much like Billy Graham before him. His statements on subjects like the Confederate Flag and sexual harassment are bold, but only relative to previous church proclamations. He’s still about three decades behind the rest of American culture in recognition of the basic human rights of the country’s non-white, non-male citizens. Resistance he is facing from evangelicals will continue so long as the theology informing white evangelical religion remains unconsidered and unchallenged.
While white evangelical religion remains dedicated to its roots, it will perpetuate its heritage. What this religious heritage produced in the 2016 election, when white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump by a record margin, is the truest expression of its moral character.
You will know a tree by its fruit.