Iconic civil rights activist John Lewis to be honored on stamp July 21 in Atlanta
By Charles Snee
John Lewis, a revered civil rights activist who later served for more than three decades in the House of Representatives, is the subject of a United States forever commemorative stamp to be issued July 21.
An official U.S. Postal Service first-day ceremony for the new nondenominated (66¢) stamp will be held at noon Eastern Daylight Time in the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel on the campus of Morehouse College, 830 Westview Drive SW, in Atlanta.
On May 20, 2017, Morehouse College awarded Lewis an honorary doctorate of humane letters following his commencement address to the graduating class of the Morehouse School of Medicine.
Ronald Stroman, a member of the Postal Service’s board of governors, will serve as the dedicating official. Stroman served as deputy postmaster general from 2011 to 2020.
Those wishing to attend the ceremony are asked to register online with the USPS. Each attendee may invite up to a maximum of nine guests, the USPS said.
“Lewis was a staunch and unwavering believer in and advocate for nonviolent protests,” the Postal Service said in a June 22 press release.
“The recipient of more than 50 honorary degrees, he was called a ‘saint’ by Time magazine and ‘the conscience of the Congress,’ by his colleagues,” according to the USPS.
The Postal Service assigned the execution of the design to longtime art director Derry Noyes, who delivered a vertical-format stamp featuring a photograph by Marco Grob of Lewis wearing a suit against a dark gray background and staring resolutely at the viewer with a firm, piercing gaze.
Linn’s Stamp News reached out to Noyes to learn more about the process that led to her selecting Grob’s photo.
“Our research assistants, PhotoAssist, found photos for me to review and this was one of them,” Noyes said. “I was drawn to it immediately because of the gravitas and power of the portrait.”
“His expression is one that conveys so much about the man. I didn’t feel as if we should have this stamp illustrated. The photograph is strong as is,” she said.
Noyes did not interact with the Lewis family when designing the stamp.
“I would have gotten the feedback had they not been pleased with this solution and we would have explored other solutions,” Noyes explained.
“I was happy that we could also show him as a younger man in the selvage area with his name at the top. He really spent most of his life fighting for freedom and human rights for all citizens,” she said.
Noyes told Linn’s she considered Lewis a hero. “It was an honor to work on this stamp,” she concluded.
The powerful visage of Lewis (1940-2020) on the new stamp was captured by Grob while he was on assignment covering the 50th anniversary of the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom for the Aug. 26, 2013, issue of Time magazine.
In that issue, Lewis was one of 17 participants in the march who recalled that memorable day in the nation’s capital when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
“You saw signs from all over America: political signs, religious signs,” Lewis recalled.
“People representing different faiths. Churches from the heart of the Midwest, the far West. People coming from all over the country to bear witness, to participate,” he said.
Lewis spoke at the march. He was 23 years old at the time and the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a position he held from 1963 to 1966 during a tumultuous time in the struggle for civil rights.
“I remember [labor unionist and civil rights activist] A. Philip Randolph introduced me as he had introduced others,” Lewis said. “He stood and said, ‘I now present to you young John Lewis, the national chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.’ ”
“I stood up, and I said to myself, This is it,” Lewis continued. “I looked to my right: I saw hundreds and thousands of young people, many of the young volunteers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I looked to my left, and I saw many young people, young men, in the trees trying to get a better view of the podium. I looked straight out. And I started speaking.
“It was an unbelievable feeling to see hundreds and thousands of people, black and white, sitting together, cheering.”
The speech Lewis gave that hot, muggy day in Washington, D.C., was a toned-down version of his original draft, which was much more militant in tone. King and other senior civil rights activists asked Lewis to soften his remarks, so as not to offend the Kennedy administration and risk setting back their push to get the federal government to address civil rights with meaningful legislation.
Not quite two years later, on March 7, 1965, Lewis and Hosea Williams led more than 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. Their act of protest resulted in a violent confrontation with Alabama state troopers that came to be called Bloody Sunday.
Televised images of Lewis and many others being assaulted and beaten (Lewis’ skull was fractured when a trooper knocked him down with a billy club) disgusted the country and put civil rights legislation on the fast track to passage.
President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law on Aug. 6, 1965.
Lewis never backed down from advancing the cause of civil rights and equal justice. Bloody Sunday was not his only encounter with violence.
“Lewis led demonstrations against racially segregated restrooms, hotels, restaurants, public parks and swimming pools, and he rose up against other indignities of second-class citizenship,” wrote Katharine Seelye in an obituary published in The New York Times on July 17, 2020, the day Lewis died in Atlanta.
“At nearly every turn he was beaten, spat upon or burned with cigarettes. He was tormented by white mobs and absorbed body blows from law enforcement,” Seelye said.
Lewis, one of the original 13 Freedom Riders who confronted segregated interstate travel in the South in 1961, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2011.
“Generations from now, when parents teach their children what is meant by courage, the story of John Lewis will come to mind — an American who knew that change could not wait for some other person or some other time; whose life is a lesson in the fierce urgency of now,” Obama said in his remarks upon presenting Lewis with the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Lewis summed up his life’s work with an inspirational 2018 post on Twitter: “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
Ashton Potter (USA) Ltd. of Williamsville, N.Y., printed 30 million John Lewis stamps in 1.5 million panes of 20 with a wide top selvage header featuring a 1963 picture of Lewis taken by photojournalist Steve Schapiro (1934-2022) when Lewis was conducting a workshop on nonviolent protest in Clarksdale, Miss.
Schapiro contributed a signed print of his 1963 photo of Lewis to a benefit auction held for Human Rights Watch in 2021.
“John Lewis died in 2020 to enormous respect and loss throughout the country as a pioneer activist who, when I met him knew what he had to do in life, and then did it,” Schapiro remarked at the time.
“It was an incredible time to be a photojournalist because there was more of an emotional flow — an ability to do more emotional pictures that captured the spirit of a person,” Schapiro once said about working during the tumultuous decade of the 1960s.
Other prominent civil rights activists have been honored on U.S. stamps. The following list of issues is not intended to be all-inclusive.
Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) was honored on a 15¢ Black Heritage stamp (Scott 1771) issued in 1979. King next appeared on one of the 33¢ stamps (3188a) in the 1999 Celebrate the Century pane of 15 (3188) honoring significant individuals and events from the 1960s.
Other champions of civil rights who have been celebrated on a stamp include Whitney Moore Young Jr. (1921-71; Scott 1875), A. Philip Randolph (1889-79; 2402), W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963; 2617), Malcolm X (1925-65; 3273) and Roy Wilkins (1901-81; 3501).
In 2005, the USPS issued a pane of 10 37¢ stamps (Scott 3937) titled “To Form A More Perfect Union.”
Prominent events memorialized on the stamps include the 1957 Little Rock Nine, 1961 Freedom Riders, 1963 March on Washington, 1964 Civil Rights Act, 1965 Selma March and 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Twelve pioneers of civil rights were celebrated on a 2009 pane of six 42¢ stamps (Scott 4384). Among those honored are educator Joel Elias Spingarn (1875-1939) and assassinated Mississippi NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers (1925-63). Spingarn created the medal named for him in 1914; it is awarded annually by the NAACP to an African American for outstanding achievement.
Two pictorial first-day postmarks for the John Lewis stamp are available from the Postal Service.
Collector-submitted envelopes for first-day covers will receive a black postmark showing Lewis’ name in capital letters and an arc of five stars above the words “FIRST DAY OF ISSUE.”
Full color pictorial first-day cancels found on covers marketed by the Postal Service and others prepared by some cachetmakers show the dome of the U.S. Capitol surrounded by nine red stars.
All orders for John Lewis first-day cancels must be postmarked by Nov. 21.
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