House postal clerk at her station for July 21 first day of John Lewis stamp
Delivering the Mail by Allen Abel
It was a special morning in the halls of Congress in Washington, D.C., on July 21 because members were honoring one of their own. But there was no presidential coffin in the rotunda of the Capitol and no unveiling of a life-sized bronze in Statuary Hall.
It was the first day of issue of a United States commemorative postage stamp with a battle-scarred man’s face on it, and the words “USA,” “JOHN LEWIS” and “forever.”
Lewis, the civil rights patriarch and 17-term member of the House of Representatives, had been gone for three years and four days — a rather rapid transit between death and official postal commemoration on a stamp, but slower than the wait had been for stamps honoring fashion designer Oscar de la Renta.
(The se-tenant [side-by-side] pane of 11 Oscar de la Renta stamps [Scott 5173] was issued Feb. 16, 2017, two years, three months and 26 days after he died on Oct. 20, 2014.)
Deep below the main floor of the Longworth House Office Building, one of five buildings used by the House of Representatives, Joan Kelsey was behind the post office counter.
Kelsey was telling a customer that she had transitioned to this USPS branch after serving in the mail room at the White House during the ill-starred administration of Richard Milhouse Nixon and his successors.
“They asked me to go to the Capitol for two weeks,” she told Linn’s Stamp News. “That was 28 years ago.” She was old enough now to be allowed an easy chair at her station.
There were cartons of memorabilia stuffed under Kelsey’s shelving, and in the boxes, she said, were photos of her posing with various U.S. presidents and sundry senators.
Among those keepsakes is a treasured picture with Lewis (1940-2020), the man whose image was on the new nondenominated (66¢) forever stamp. She just wasn’t about to begin excavating to prove it.
“Congressman Lewis would come in here all the time,” Kelsey recalled. “He would stand in line just like everybody else and buy his stamps.”
But Lewis was not like everybody else. He had been bloodied on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., and he had marched with Martin Luther King Jr.
For more than 30 years Lewis had represented the people of Atlanta, and he had lived to have the Presidential Medal of Freedom draped around his neck by President Barack Obama.
The public career of the man on the new stamp had begun in the spring of 1958 when the teenage Lewis summoned the audacity to write to King to offer his services to the cause of racial equality.
“You could only imagine back in Troy, Alabama, back on the farm where was with his brothers and sisters, the mail came intermittently and he treasured every piece of mail that came,” Michael Collins, who served as Lewis’s congressional chief of staff, told Linn’s in an interview.
“He often told us how he grew up listening to the old-fashioned radio hearing about Dr. King and the civil rights movement,” Collins said.
“The only opportunity he could think of was to write a letter and put a stamp on it and send it off, not knowing where it would land,” Collins remembered. “The mail was perilous. It was irregular. But it was the only communication that they had.”
King received the young acolyte’s letter and mailed him a bus ticket from Troy to Montgomery, Ala., and this, Collins said, “solidified his belief in the mail system and that was the start of his life in the civil rights movement, as he recounted for us many times.”
“He was a stamp collector,” Collins said. “Nobody knew that, but he cherished stamps. To see him on a stamp now, that is a meeting of history and fate.”
“What he received in the mail, overwhelmingly, were thank-yous,” former Lewis staff member Jared McKinley recalled in an interview with Linn’s. “People thanking him and telling him that he had changed their lives.”
“And he loved to put pen to paper, to put his thoughts down, to express his appreciation to the many, many people who touched him,” McKinley said.
“The most interesting piece of correspondence that I am aware of came from President Barack Obama,” he said. “It was just a scrap of a napkin, where President Obama wrote down that he would not have been elected if it were not for the congressman.”
“He was old school — he didn’t do emails,” McKinley said. “He did not pay a bill online. He mailed checks each and every time he paid a bill. He was always buying stamps.”
Which, of course, is how he met Kelsey in her big chair in the Longworth basement.
“I also sipped from a bitter cup,” she said. “We all did. It was a bitter cup. Picking cotton. Working in the fields as a child in the Texas sun, a little child doing the same work that a 21-year-old was expected to do.”
“I didn’t push like John Lewis did,” she sighed. “But then I saw how some leaders who had opposed him would come to his office, and he forgave them. And now I can smile, too.”
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