“It’s fitting that we honor John Lewis with this formidable ship, because John Lewis was a warrior. One of the mottos of the Navy is ‘Semper Fortis’ — ‘Always Courageous’ — and John Lewis was indeed always courageous,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who lead a congressional delegation to the event on Saturday. “This ship will be a beacon to the world reminding all who see it of the persistence and courage of John Lewis.”
Lewis — the son of sharecroppers who survived a brutal beating by police during a landmark 1965 march in Selma, Alabama — served as the US representative for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District for more than three decades and was widely seen as a moral conscience of Congress because of his decades-long embodiment of the nonviolent fight for civil rights. The Democrat’s passionate oratory was backed by a long record of action that included, by his count, more than 40 arrests while demonstrating against racial and social injustice.
Members of the late congressman’s family were also in attendance Saturday.
“On behalf of my beloved, uncle, the entire Lewis family, we’re humbled and grateful for the christening of the USNS John Lewis,” said Marcus Tyner, a nephew of Lewis. “We all agree that what is most important at this critical time, and what will please my uncle most is the passing of the John Lewis Voting Rights Bill.”
The 742-foot-long vessel is designed to transfer fuel to US Navy carrier strike group ships operating at sea, according to the Navy.
“Civil Service Mariners will operate this ship with the skill, resolve and courage displayed by John Lewis. With this ship, our naval service is better positioned to meet the challenges that lie ahead,” said Rear Admiral Michael Wettlaufer, commander of Military Sealift Command.
Future John Lewis-class oilers will be named for other prominent civil rights leaders Harvey Milk, Earl Warren, Robert F. Kennedy, Lucy Stone and Sojourner Truth, according to the Navy.
The sponsor of the ship, the person asked as Navy tradition to Christen the ship, was actress and activist Alfre Woodard.
“Like the man himself, the presence of the USNS John Lewis, may it inspire justice as a mission, peace as a goal, and compassion as a way of moving. This lady sales in a legacy as deep as the waters she traverses,” she said.
A follower and colleague of Martin Luther King Jr., Lewis participated in lunch counter sit-ins, joined the Freedom Riders in challenging segregated buses and — at the age of 23 — was a keynote speaker at the historic 1963 March on Washington.
At age 25, Lewis helped lead a march for voting rights on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where he and other marchers were met by heavily armed state and local police who attacked them with clubs, fracturing Lewis’ skull. Images from that “Bloody Sunday” shocked the nation and galvanized support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Once in Washington, he focused on fighting against poverty and helping younger generations by improving education and health care. He also co-wrote a series of graphic novels about the civil rights movement, which won him a National Book Award.
In 2011, after more than 50 years on the front lines of the civil rights movement, Lewis received the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, placed round his neck by then-President Barack Obama.
CNN’s Rachel Janfaza, Suzanne Malveaux, Lauren Fox, Faith Karimi and Brandon Griggs contributed to this report.