John Lewis

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.)

A new class of Navy ships will still be named after U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) after a Mississippi Republican failed in late June to strip the honor from the civil rights icon. Rep. Steven Palazzo (R) was unable to win approval from a House panel for a vote on the House floor on legislation to stop the Navy from naming vessels after politicians who have not served in the U.S. military or as president.

Palazzo wanted to prohibit the Navy from using federal funds to name ships for any living or deceased Congressional lawmakers. If the amendment to the fiscal 2017 Defense Department spending bill had become law, Lewis would have been ineligible for the honor.

In a press statement, Palazzo said his amendment did not target Lewis. Instead, he argued, Navy ships should only be named after former presidents, war heroes and veterans.  “We have 76 living recipients of the Medal of Honor. I would suggest that the Secretary of the Navy start there,” he said.

A senior staffer for Lewis told the AFRO that the naming of the new class of Navy ships goes beyond just being an honor for the Georgia lawmaker, it also recognizes the social consciousness of the entire nation. The Naval honor “recognizes the hundreds and thousands of nameless people who sacrificed their lives for the Civil Rights Movement, and whose names will never be known.”

U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus announced in early January that the new class of fleet replenishment oilers will be named after Lewis, who has served in Congress since 1986. Mabus said the USNS John Lewis (T-AO-205) will begin construction in 2018. “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,” Mabus said in a statement.

Lewis, often called “the conscious of the Congress,” spoke at the historic 1963 March on Washington and nearly died leading protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. Most recently, Lewis led a 26-hour sit-in on the floor the U.S. House of Representatives to protest Congress’ lack of action to combat gun violence.

“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,” Mabus said.

The Navy also plans to name ships after former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D – Michigan).  The Navy has only rarely named ships for living persons, according to a recent study by the Congressional Research Service published last month.


Stephen K. Cooper

Special to the AFRO