John Lewis addresses NASSCO workers
Rep. John Lewis, wearing a welding jacket, addresses shipyard workers at Monday’s ceremony. Photo by Chris Jennewein

Civil rights icon John Lewis welded his initials into the keel plate of the first in a new class of Navy support ships on Monday, saying he hoped the vessel would serve as an inspiration.

The Congressman from Georgia was joined by actress and political activist Alfre Woodard as well as hundreds of workers at the traditional ceremony in the General Dynamics NASSCO shipyard in Barrio Logan.

“To name a series of ships after me is…unbelievable,” said Lewis, who is the son of an Alabama sharecropper. “It says something about the distance we’ve come and the progress we’ve made. It’s a different America.”

John Lewis welds his initials
Rep. John Lewis welds his initials with the assistance of a NASSCO employee.

The future USNS John Lewis is the first in a new class of Navy fleet replenishment oilers, all of which will be named for civil rights leaders. The next in the class will be named for San Francisco gay-rights activist Harvey Milk.

The 742-foot-long vessels will refuel Navy warships at sea and also carry aviation fuel for the aircraft-carrier fleet as well as other supplies.

Both Lewis and Woodard were trained briefly in the use of a welding torch. Later in the ceremony, both welded their initials onto a steel plate that will be attached to the ship, which began construction in September.

“That made me much more nervous than when they call your name and you have to go up for an award,” quipped Woodard after removing her welding gear and speaking to the crowd.

Woodard, who is the ship’s sponsor in Navy tradition, said the new vessel will be a symbol for the best of America as Lewis is. “He reminds us to keep reaching for who we say we are,” she said.

NASSCO President Kevin Graney described Lewis as “the very embodiment of perseverance” in the fight for civil rights. He noted that NASSCO has the most diverse workforce of any large shipyard in the Untied States.

Turning to Lewis, he said, “The men and women of NASSCO are honored to be building your ship, sir.”

Lewis was instrumental in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He chaired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, and led the 1965 march across the Edmud Pettus Bridge in Selma, where he and other marchers were beaten by Alabama State Police. Lewis suffered a skull fracture.

His political career began with election to the Atlanta City Council in 1981, and then to Congress in 1987. He is currently serving his 17th term.

“I hope this ship will inspire people,” he told the shipyard workers and assembled dignitaries next to the partially completed vessel.

“My philosophy is very simple,” he explained. “When you see something that’s not right, you have a moral obligation to speak out.”

Alfre Woodard speaks to NASSCO employees
Alfre Woodard, also wearing a welding jacket, speaks with NASSCO employees. Photo by Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.