Sun, 04 Jun 2023
Navy ship named for John Lewis, Nashville civil rights legend

Navy ship named for John Lewis, Nashville civil rights legend



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A class of Navy ships has been named for civil rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who participated in Nashville lunch counter sit-ins as a college student in the 1950s and ’60s.  

The first of these ships, a replenishment oiler being built at the General Dynamics Shipyard, according to NBC 7 San Diego, will be officially dubbed “USNS John Lewis.” Lewis, along with actress Alfre Woodard, welded their initials into the ship in May at San Diego Harbor, NBC reported. The Navy wishes to obtain 20 John Lewis-class ships, with the first six already ordered.

Raised by sharecroppers in Troy, Alabama, Lewis enrolled in Nashville’s American Baptist Theological Seminary in 1957. 

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., in a 2013 file photo. (Photo: The Associated Press)

During his time in the city, he participated in sit-ins and bus protests to highlight the inequalities of segregation. He was also on the first Washington Freedom Ride in 1961. Throughout these often dangerous situations, Lewis was arrested 40 times.

Lewis, who crossed paths with the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy, remained in Music City until 1963. In that year, he was elected as chairman of Atlanta-based civil rights group Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

“Nashville prepared me,” Lewis previously said in Washington. “If it hadn’t been for Nashville, I would not be the person I am now.”

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Gasping for breath, John Lewis stands inside the insecticide fume-filled Krystal lunch counter at 204 Fifth Ave. N. in downtown Nashville on Nov. 10, 1960, after the manager turned on a fumigating machine to disrupt Lewis and fellow sit-in demonstrator James Bevel. (Photo: Jimmy Ellis / The Tennessean)

Participants of some of these Nashville protests, including Lewis, returned to the city in 2017 to urge the next generation to continue the fight. The event was held at the Woolworth on Fifth venue and restaurant, which was once the site of lunch counter sit-ins. 

“I grew up sitting on those lunch counter stools,” Lewis said at the event.

The lunch counter campaign lasted from from Feb. 13 to May 10, 1960, when six stores opened their counters to black customers. 

Lewis is currently serving his 17th term as Georgia’s representative for the 5th Congressional District. 

Reach Andrew Wigdor at [email protected] and on Twitter @andrew_wigdor

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