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John Lewis's Death Reminds Us of Sacrifices Made and Work Still Ahead

by on July 23, 2020 5:00 AM

The death of Congressman John Lewis reminded us of the sacrifices made for equality in America, but also reminded us of the remaining challenges and the efforts we must undertake.

As a younger man John Lewis and his fellow crusaders for equality and voting rights were met with attack dogs, fire hoses and clubs. Others were murdered. Those that weren’t killed were beaten and bloodied but remained steadfast with their feet firmly planted on the rock of America’s unrealized ideals of universal equality.

Now the generation that battled Jim Crow oppression and segregation is passing. We the living must commit to continue the march towards a more perfect union.

But the question remains: What kind of a country do we want to be?

True leadership is not defined by how many people you can knock down, intimidate, control and dominate. America is strongest when the power of unity and understanding are the sermons preached from the bully pulpit on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The only bullying that should be done from that pulpit is to push aside hate, to destroy division and to work toward a better future for all Americans. But there is work to be done.

The life’s work of John Lewis is not done. The dark impulses of voter suppression are rising again.

The right to vote is a powerful gift willed to all of us by the people who’ve come before. If you do not vote, you’ve thrown away your voice, your American inheritance. You’ve rendered the sacrifice of lives and blood lost, of marches in the streets as acts, done in vain.

It is hard for people who did not live through certain eras of history to understand it without studying or reading the voices of that time. For a number of reasons we are less versed in the history of this country than maybe we have been at any other time. We are susceptible to misinformation and that is a threat to our future.

Divisive social media accounts from here and abroad ignite hostile debate in our society. They intentionally destroy and discount facts with false conspiracy theories and lies to mislead and divide us.

America, we must be better than this. We stand at a crossroads where we can prove true greatness. But it requires leadership that asks us to do difficult things.

We shouldn’t need orders to dictate that we do what is right for each other. How many young people enlisted in the military for past wars before they were drafted? For the past two decades we’ve fought a war on terror with men and women who enlisted. Medical professionals are in hospitals doing the work this country needs right now because they wanted to be healers. 

And we can’t wash our hands, keep some distance and wear a mask? And some say that they can’t or won’t vote?

This is the moment where we all have to prove we are worthy of the heroes before us and the heroes among us. We must move from these times when every political discussion begins from a place of distrust, dislike and discord.

Years from now history will judge us by where we stood in this moment. Our children and grandchildren will ask where we stood.

What will we say to them?

Will we say wearing a mask and keeping our distance was too great a burden to bear? Will we say we didn’t vote because we couldn’t be bothered or we were making a statement of protest? Will we say that we sat silently while racism and voter suppression drove wedges between us?

We can be sure John Lewis met his maker secure in what he did when history called upon him to stand up. How deep is the love that a man like John Lewis had to fight to bend the arc of history in a nation where he was rejected because of the color of his skin?

History’s summons echoes from the mountains, through valleys, across plains and from shore to shore. It is time to stand and you can only be counted if you grab the gift that heroes and martyrs secured for all of us.

The ghosts of the past are counting on us all to register to vote, to get others registered and to turn out to make our voices heard. We owe it to them to make sure all voices are heard and all votes are counted.

The power of our example will come when we stand up and tell the world what kind of America we want. 

And as January 2021 begins, America must turn back from the current climate where governing power is defined by the 50.01% over 49.99%. We must be a country where government’s power is granted by the consent of all who are governed, not simply because we may be on the right side of an election’s outcome.

If we can arrive at a time of constructive governance and the inclusion of all voices as the foundation of our government, then we will have shown the true greatness of America.


State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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