I had the privilege to attend the United States Military Academy from 1977-1981. I am well aware that no human institution is perfect and, certainly, West Point has had its share of scandals and failures. However, what I continue to admire most about this institution that was founded in 1802, is its ideals and aspirations in developing leaders of character who when faced with difficult and perilous decisions, will not shrink before those challenges and choose the right but often harder path.
In the summer of my freshman year, as a part of West Point’s socialization efforts, I attended “Beast Barracks”. It was at this event where we were taught the ways of the military as well as West Point’s stringent standards of discipline and good order. The teaching was delivered by the upperclassmen, many of whom felt that intense pressure of verbal reprimand coupled with strenuous physical activity were the primary tools of their indoctrination efforts. On Sundays when we usually had a few hours of respite, we were strongly encouraged to go to Church activities of whatever faith persuasion we identified with. As part of the Plebe experience, we were expected to memorize quotes and trivia associated with the military and West Point and I am grateful that the Cadet Prayer was one of those.
My memory at 60 is not as sharp as it was at 17 when I started at West Point, but a few key sentences of the prayer still are etched in my little brain almost 40 years after graduation. “Encourage us in our endeavor to live above the common level of life. Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half-truth when the whole can be won.”
These words still inspire me. They seem to me to be the bedrock of not just this quality called character but also the bedrock for how to live our lives with honor, integrity, and wholeness. Today, Congressman John Lewis will be laid to rest. I hope many in this beloved country of mine will use this opportunity to take a moment to reflect on the courage and character of this man in standing up to both overt and more subtle manifestation of racism often violently supported by our local, state, and Federal governments. I have watched at least half a dozen times, John Lewis lead the march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma where rows of state troopers and police armed with batons, angrily awaited the order to charge the peaceful throng of marchers. And whenever I watch this, I think of my own character and my hope that I will have the strength of character, as John Lewis did, to live my life with greater meaning and integrity and, “to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never be content with a half-truth when the whole can be won.”