USNS John Lewis christening among national tributes 1 year after congressman’s death

SAN DIEGO — Standing beside the hulking naval ship named after Congressman John Lewis, Actress Alfre Woodard Spencer said she hadn’t anticipated attending the ceremonial christening without him.

The plan was for them to follow the ship’s construction together; Lewis would have stood next to her when she broke the bottle of champagne across its hull as part of the traditional blessing. Maybe they would dance together, she mused, because dancing was one of his favorite things.

Instead, the christening of the USNS John Lewis was held one year to the date after Lewis’ death at age 80. The event was not just a dedication of the ship but an opportunity for members of Congress, family and friends to remember the civil rights champion.

“John Lewis lives in all the spaces where people reach out their hands to pull others up to the lives that they deserve,” she said. “And now he lives in the name and the embodiment of this mighty sailing vessel and its mission of fortifying and sustaining those who have committed themselves to the service of our nation.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was among nearly 30 members of Congress in attendance. The group also included Georgia U.S. Reps. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta, Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, and Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia.

The christening of the 742-foot Navy ship, which will be used to bring fuel and supplies to other vessels, was one of many events across the nation on Saturday that commemorated Lewis’ death.

In Atlanta, hundreds of cyclists gathered for an event dubbed the “John Lewis Memorial Freedom Ride.” The group started near the King Center and then rode to Lewis’ gravesite at South-View Cemetery where they prayed and left behind blue flowers.

The final stop was the iconic mural of Lewis on Auburn Avenue for a balloon release.

Hundreds of cyclists joined together in Atlanta to ride in the memory of the late Rep. John Lewis. Video by Ryon Horne

“That’s something that he stood for: equality throughout all people,” said Jerrick Lewis, the congressman’s nephew, and one of the organizers of the Atlanta event. “So, what better way to honor him than just coming together as one?”

The city of Atlanta is also planning a more formal tribute later this month.

In Nashville, where Lewis attended college and his civil rights activism began, Mayor John Cooper formally renamed a stretch of Fifth Avenue after the congressman. The city has also erected a historical marker that memorializes the work of Lewis and his fellow Freedom Riders. After the street unveiling, former Vice President Al Gore and musician Darius Rucker headlined a “celebration of life” at the historic Ryman Auditorium.

Black Lives Matter Plaza was the site of Lewis’ last public appearance in June 2020. Saturday night, a candlelight vigil is planned by various voting and civil rights organizations. Their message will be not only one of remembrance but to encourage action.

Democrats and voting rights activists have said that the best way to honor Lewis’ memory is to pass federal voting legislation that could blunt the impact of laws passed in Georgia and other states that they say make it tougher to cast a ballot.

Marcus Tyner, another nephew of Lewis’, made a similar plea during his remarks at the christening, referring to a measure named for Lewis that would reinstate federal review before certain states are allowed to change their election laws. House leaders said they plan to bring the bill up for a vote later this year, but Republicans in the Senate can use the filibuster to block its passage.

“We all agree that what is most important at this critical time, what would please my uncle most, is the passing of the John Lewis voting rights bill,” Tyner said.