Like the rest of John Lewis’s life, the First Day of Issue Dedication Ceremony for his United States Postal Service Forever Stamp, held Friday afternoon at the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College, proved emotional, inspirational, and educational.
For starters, the former U.S. Congressman, who represented Georgia’s 5th District for 33 years, was such an avid stamp collector that he would ask his congressional office chief-of-staff Michael Collins to drive him to the post office in Washington D.C. on days new stamps were first issued.
“Whenever a new Forever Stamp came out, he was like a kid in a candy store, purchasing more than he’d ever use,” Collins told the crowd of hundreds seated in the chapel. “Generations of his staff, both in his district and DC offices, will tell you about the countless trips to every post office from Atlanta to the House office building to buy stamps and post his mail.” Collins added that when the congressman died three years ago at age 80, the stamps he left behind filled a box.
Among the notable guests who attended the two-hour ceremony hosted by actress Alfre Woodard: U.S. Senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock; former Atlanta mayors Bill Campbell and Shirley Franklin; Congresswoman Nikema Williams, Lewis’s successor in the 5th District; 2nd District U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop; gospel singer Dottie Peoples; “Voice of Selma” civil rights activist and singer Betty Mae Fikes; the Ebenezer Baptist church choir; author Peggy Wallace Kennedy; and members of the Lewis family, including the congressman’s brothers Sam and Grant Lewis and his son, John-Miles Lewis. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also sent a letter to be read at the ceremony.
The Lewis family, Ossoff, Warnock, Franklin, Campbell, and other dignitaries took to the stage as Ronald Stroman, a member of the United States Postal Service Board of Governors and former postmaster general, publicly unveiled the Lewis stamp cloaked beneath a blue curtain. “It is an honor to stand here today to honor this remarkable man with our latest Forever stamp,” said Stroman. “The photograph on the stamp, taken by Marco Grob for Time magazine, radiates John Lewis’ determination and seriousness of purpose. But it also reflects his humanity and his decency. Look carefully at how the shadow falls on the right side of his face, illuminating the left side of his face. In a way, that takes the viewer from darkness into light, a fitting tribute to a man who was the conscience of a country.”
“When I met John Lewis over 50 years ago, it was like meeting a transcendent speaker, a Benjamin Franklin or a Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence,” Campbell said during the ceremony. “But here was someone who made America love those words. John Lewis touched so many of us and changed lives. In fact, Andrew Young, who couldn’t be here today because he’s at the United Nations commemorating Nelson Mandela [Young delivered the keynote address for Nelson Mandela Day], said that when he and his wife Jean were in New York and saw John Lewis being beaten [in Selma, Alabama in 1965 on the Edmund Pettis Bridge], they immediately sold their house and moved to Atlanta, becoming a civil rights icon himself, working beside Dr. King and John Lewis.”
Franklin recalled being an 18-year-old freshman at Howard University attending the March on Washington 60 years ago this summer. “Out of all the speakers, I was most excited to hear John Lewis,” she said. “It wasn’t just his words, his mannerisms, and his courage. It was his humility that inspired me as a young woman to go into public service. John Lewis’s legacy rests with all of us. He would not only tell us to get into ‘Good Trouble’ . . . he would tell us that we have to get everyone out to vote and to register and to stand up and to speak up.”
John-Miles Lewis smiled while staring across the stage at his father’s stamp before telling the assembled, “It is such an honor to see my father commemorated in this way. A lot of people with today’s technology, don’t know what this means, how emails, texts, and emojis are so impersonal. My father knew the personality contained in handwriting, that writing a letter was something intimate. It was a conscious effort to get into your car, go to the post office, get yourself some stamps, come home, find a pen, find paper, find an address, and write. You took that time because the person you were writing to meant something. That means something.”
He then recalled the fateful letter his father wrote to Martin Luther King, Jr. as a teenager in 1957 and his father’s marvel at receiving a response from King, mailed to the Lewis home in Troy, Alabama. “To receive a reply from one of the most important people in human history? Who not only writes you back, but asks you to join the movement? Two stamps put on two envelopes transformed history. My father is now a part of U.S. Postal history, along with Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Harriet Tubman. The son of a sharecropper to a civil rights revolutionary to the man considered ‘the Conscience of the Congress’ was a journey that began with a letter and a stamp.”
With a church organ softly accompanying his words, Senator and Ebenezer Baptist Pastor Warnock closed out the ceremony by delivering the benediction. “We are mindful of the spirit of John Robert Lewis, who reminded us through his word and through his example that there are many ways to pray,” Warnock said. “He reminded us that a vote is a kind of a prayer of the world we desire for ourselves and for our children. John Lewis believed that democracy is the political enactment of the spiritual idea, the notion that each of us is a child of God. That we have within us a spark of the divine. Therefore, we ought to have a voice, a vote in the future of our great nation and our destiny within it. So God, bless us now to carry out his vision. When he crossed that bridge [in Selma], he had no reason to believe that he could win. But by some stroke of destiny and human resilience, he crossed the bridge and became a bridge. And we are the blessed inheritors of that grand vision.”
“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, became a sermon,” Warnock continued. “May we hear it, may we live it, again and again. In these difficult days, when there is an all-out assault on his vision, remind us to remind America that we cannot remember John Lewis and dismember his legacy at the same time. Help us to be vigilant, steadfast, honest, and true in the work of standing up for workers, for women, and for a vote for a voice.”
The John Lewis stamps are available for purchase here.