House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with Rep. Maxine Waters and other congressional leaders at the stern of the USNS John Lewis. Photo by Chris Jennewein

The USNS John Lewis, first ship in a new class of Navy fleet oilers named for civil rights leaders, was christened Saturday with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and over two dozen members of Congress on hand.

Speakers at the General Dynamics NASSCO shipyard lauded the late John Lewis, the son of sharecroppers who grew up in segregated rural Georgia, went on to become a Freedom Rider fighting for voting rights, and ultimately was elected to represent the Atlanta area in Congress.

Lewis died a year ago Saturday, but was in San Diego in May 2019 to weld his initials into the keel plate as the vessel took shape at the shipyard in Barrio Logan.

“It’s fitting that we honor John Lewis with this formidable ship because John Lewis was a warrior,” said Pelosi. “John’s great courage made him revered in the halls of Congress.”

She also praised former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus’ symbolism in naming the new ships after civil rights leaders, including Harvey Milk, Earl Warren, Sojourner Truth, Lucy Stone and Robert F. Kennedy, because of their fundamental supporting role in the military.

Fleet oilers carry fuel, parts and provisions to keep Navy warships operating far from bases for months in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans.

The new class of 742-foot-long vessels displace 50,000 tons. They’re nearly 100 feet longer and displace 20,000 tons more than the previous Henry J. Kaiser class of oilers.

Alfre Woodard Spencer after the christening.

The ship’s sponsor, actress and political activist Alfre Woodard Spencer, said Lewis remains a powerful presence in America and in the embodiment of a vessel that is essential to the Navy.

“John Lewis stood for his country. He took blows for his country,” she said. “We miss him on this platform, but we will never be without him.”

Accompanied by Pelosi, Spencer broke the bottle of Champaign on the ship’s hull, proclaiming, “For the United States of America, I christen thee USNS John Lewis. May God bless this ship and all who sail in her.”

The ship’s motto is “unbreakable perseverance,” a phrase from President Obama’s eulogy that Lewis was “a man of pure joy and unbreakable perseverance.”

Meeting with reporters after the christening, Pelosi said she is fighting for passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would stop Republican-led efforts to restrict voting based on former President Trump’s false claims of election fraud.

“We’re not going to stop until we get the job done,” she said, adding that it would be appropriate to exempt this legislation from the filibuster and pass it with a simple majority in the Senate.

Alfre Woodard Spencer (left) and Nancy Pelosi react to the spray of Champagne. Courtesy NASSCO
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Chris Jennewein

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