The U.S. Postal Service launched its John Lewis stamp at Morehouse College Friday afternoon with gospel singers and heartfelt tributes.
The two-hour ceremony, which coincided with the on-sale date of a “forever” stamp bearing the face of the civil rights icon, was more of a ‘celebration of life’ church service than a marketing event.
It’s been three years since Georgia said goodbye to Lewis, its beloved U.S. congressman who served the fifth district from 1987 until he died at 80 on July 17, 2020 after battling pancreatic cancer.
Although Lewis’ 2020 funeral service at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church was streamed around the world and featured former U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama as speakers (along with a letter from Jimmy Carter), the local public was not able to properly celebrate Lewis during a summer dominated by COVID-19 protocols, protests and an election fraught with disinformation.
That’s why Friday’s USPS stamp dedication felt like a long-awaited reunion. A banner of the stamp hung next to a bronze bust of Gandhi in the lobby of the Martin Luther King, Jr. International Chapel as senators, mayors, Lewis’ former staffers, family, and neighbors graced the stage.
A parade of memories, thanks, and gratitude
Hosted by actress Alfre Woodard, the event featured the Ebenezer Baptist Church choir and remembrances by USPS Board of Governors member Ronald Stroman, Morehouse dean Lawrence Edward Carter, Sr. and VP Henry Goodgame, Jr., former Atlanta mayors Bill Campbell and Shirley Franklin, Linda Earley Chastang, interim president and CEO of the John and Lillian Miles Lewis Foundation and others who lauded Lewis’ appearance at the 1963 March on Washington, his leadership in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and his courage and resolve on Bloody Sunday as he led marches over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965.
- Sherry Frank, a former director at the American Jewish Committee and initiator of the Atlanta Black-Jewish Coalition, spoke about Lewis’ support for the Jewish community as both an Atlanta city councilman and a member of Congress, as well as her family’s deep friendship with Lewis, his wife Lillian and their son John Miles Lewis, who spoke later in the program. Frank read a message from Hillary Clinton, who was unable to attend.
- Peggy Wallace Kennedy, a civil rights activist and daughter of segregationist Alabama Governors George and Luleen Wallace who grew up a few miles from Lewis’ hometown of Troy, recalled walking the Pettus bridge with Lewis in 2009. “One act of kindness can make all the difference in a person’s life,” she said. “For him to take my hand and walk with me across that bridge showed me that forgiveness, reconciliation, and unconditional love can heal the human heart and restore the soul…John gave me the courage to step away from my past and find my own voice.”
- Bettie Mae Fikes, who inspired civil rights marchers as a teenage singer at the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Selma, Alabama in the 1960s, sang a rousing freeform medley of freedom songs including “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round.”
Both of Georgia’s U.S. Sens Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock participated in the unveiling of the stamp, and at one point Woodard joked that Reverend Warnock should not make an altar call because she lives in California and would feel compelled to join the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church where is a pastor. Woodard asked the senators to stand. The pair of them waved to the audience from the front row with a backdrop of their mentor Lewis behind them—symbolizing how much has happened in America since the civil rights leader’s death.
A growing legacy
Compelling remarks by an emotional Michael Collins, longtime Chief of Staff for Lewis’ congressional office in Washington, D.C. and current chair of the Lewis Foundation, centered around the meaning of the John Lewis ‘forever’ stamp. Collins mentioned the letter an 18-year-old Lewis wrote to Dr. King and the reply he received. Their bond first created by mail—sent with stamps—led to a movement that changed the world.
John Miles Lewis also mentioned the importance of this recognition for his late father, who was an avid stamp collector. In an era of email and impersonal communication, letter writing is a lost art, Lewis said. Taking the time to write to someone mattered. “It meant something,” he said. “This means something,” he added, pointing to the larger-than-life stamp on stage.
Then gospel hitmaker Dottie Peoples performed one of Lewis’ favorite numbers, “He’s An On-Time God” as the choir and audience joined in on the uplifting chorus.
When Warnock gave the benediction at the end of the ceremony, it mirrored Lewis’ funeral thirty-six months ago. But this time there was a lightness in the air. The pandemic, elections, and re-elections, January 6, 2021, and the continuing difficulties in the fight for voting rights for all Americans—none of it seemed insurmountable now.
For the followers of John Lewis, there is no bridge too far.
“When he crossed that bridge he had no reason to believe he could win,” Warnock prayed. “But by some stroke of destiny mingled with human resilience, he crossed the bridge and became a bridge. And we are the blessed inheritors of that grand vision. And so now, may future generations say the name of the boy from Troy, who as a young man thought he might spend his life preaching sermons, but instead he became a sermon. May we hear it, may we live it … And now as we leave this place, even as we walk out, put running in our feet so that we might make real the promises of democracy.”
This story comes to Rough Draft Atlanta through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.