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It is a rare honor for the Georgia congressman and civil rights icon.

The U.S. Navy will honor civil rights icon and Georgia congressman John Lewis in a big way — by naming a replenishment oiler ship after the leader.

The announcement — delivered by Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus — was made Wednesday afternoon in Washington D.C. Lewis, who tweeted he was “grateful” for the honor, reportedly cried when he was informed of the idea months ago.

According to NBC:

“As the first of its class, the future USNS John Lewis will play a vital role in the mission of our Navy and Marine Corps while also forging a new path in fleet replenishment,” said Mabus. “Naming this ship after John Lewis is a fitting tribute to a man who has, from his youth, been at the forefront of progressive social and human rights movements in the U.S., directly shaping both the past and future of our nation.”

Lewis cried when Mabus stopped by his office a few months ago to share what was then an idea, he told NBCBLK. “He said, ‘I have been so moved and inspired by your work and others during the civil rights movement. My idea is to name a ship in your honor,'” Lewis said. When the surprised congressman asked him, “How can you do this,” Mabus responded, “I am the Secretary of the Navy; I have the power.”

Naming the ship after the civil rights leader is a first in many ways — the USNS John Lewis is said to be the “first of the next generation” of fleet replenishment oilers (T-AO-205), measuring more than 677 feet long and 97.5 feet wide. They are responsible for providing fuel and fleet cargo to ships at sea, NBC reports. The new generation of ships will all be named after Civil Rights heroes, a first also announced by Lewis’ office.

The irony of a ship donning his name is not lost on Lewis, 75, who told NBC he never actually learned to swim.

“In Troy, we couldn’t use the swimming pool, so I never learned to swim,” he said. “All these years later, to hear the Secretary of the Navy say he wanted to name a ship after me — we cried a little together and we hugged.”


I believe in freedom. I believe so much that people should be free. I was prepared to give it everything I had,” he said. “I didn’t do anything special. I just got in trouble. It was good trouble. It was necessary trouble. My parents would tell us, ‘Don’t get in the way.’ I just tried to help out.”

It is that focus on freedom that Mabus says will live within USNS John Lewis.

“T-AO 205 will, for decades to come, serve as a visible symbol of the freedoms Representative Lewis holds dear, and his example will live on in the steel of that ship and in all those who will serve aboard her, ” said Mabus.

Lewis, who is widely known for his role in the “Freedom Rides” of the 1960s and for serving as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was elected to Congress in 1986. The leader, who often demonstrated alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was also a keynote speaker at 1963’s March on Washington.

It is Lewis who, bloodied and beaten, can be seen in historic and disturbing photographs from Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. State troopers beat Black activists attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965 into Montgomery. Lewis, only 24 at the time, led the march with activist Hosea Williams.



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