US Navy Ships Named After 'People Who Fought For Civil Rights And Human Rights'

Who are the people honoured by the US Navy with a ship named after them?

The United States Navy is naming a fleet of its ships after people who fought for civil rights and human rights - including civil rights activist John Lewis, the first openly gay elected official Harvey Milk, politician Robert F. Kennedy and women's rights activist Sojourner Truth.

It is part of a process proposed five years ago as part of a push by the US Navy towards more diversity and inclusion in the naming process of its fleet.

Names for Navy ships are traditionally chosen and announced by the Secretary of the Navy, under the direction of the President and in accordance with rules prescribed by Congress. 

In 2016, then-Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced that the Navy’s new oilers will be named for “people who fought for civil rights and human rights” and that the first ship in the class would be named after US House of Representatives member, John Lewis.

The Navy plans to procure a total of 20 John Lewis-class ships.

The $3.2 billion contract went to General Dynamics NASSCO in San Diego for the design and construction of the first six ships. Construction began in September 2018. 

The ships are known as oilers, designed to carry fuel and lubricating oil, as well as small quantities of fresh and frozen provisions to support US Navy ships at sea and refuel aircraft attached to aircraft carriers. 

On January 12, 2021, USNS John Lewis (T-AO 205), was the first of six vessels in the John Lewis-class fleet oiler program launched by General Dynamics NASSCO.

The 742- foot long vessel is designed to transfer fuel to US Navy carrier strike group ships operating at sea.

The oilers will have the capacity to carry 157,000 barrels of oil and be able to travel up to a speed of 23 miles per hour. 

So far, apart from John Lewis, the Navy has only announced five of the other people who will be honoured with a ship named after them.

They are Harvey Milk, Earl Warren, Robert F. Kennedy, Lucy Stone, and Sojourner Truth.

The naming of ships after national heroes and influential figures has been one of the US Navy’s most honoured traditions.

Here is an examination of who these important historical figures were and what they contributed to civil and human rights in America.

Photo courtesy General Dynamics NASSCO) and US Navy.

John Lewis 

John Robert Lewis (born February 21, 1940, near Troy, Alabama, U.S. - died July 17, 2020, Atlanta Georgia) was an American Civil Rights leader and politician best known for leading the civil rights march in Selma, Alabama in March 7th 1965.

Remembered as ‘bloody Sunday’ for the horrific scale of police violence that the march was met with, the event became a pivotal moment in the US civil rights movement.

More than 50 marchers were hospitalised including Lewis who suffered a skull fracture. Before being taken to hospital he gave an impassioned speech on national television calling on President Lyndon B. Johnson to take action in the South.

Within 48 hours, marches took place across 80 US cities in support of Selma which contributed to the monumental passing of the Voting Rights Act which aimed at removing barriers that prevented black people from exercising their legal right to vote.

John Lewis was one of the ‘Big Six’ leaders of the civil rights movement along with Martin Luther King, James Farmer, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young and Asa Phillip Randolph. Throughout his life he had received numerous awards for his activism including the Martin Luther King Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize in 1975, the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in 2001 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

John Lewis was greatly admired by President Obama, under who the decision was made to name the class of oilers after the civil rights activist.

Obama said that he embodied “that most American of ideas — that idea that any of us ordinary people, without rank or wealth or title or fame, can somehow point out the imperfections of this nation and come together and challenge the status quo and decide that it is in our power to remake this country that we love until it more closely aligns with our highest ideals.”

Lewis died in 2020 after a battle with Pancreatic cancer. He lauded the Black Lives Matter movement saying in a New York Times essay that even though he would not personally be there with them on the streets, he would be there in spirit.

American civil rights leaders, including John Lewis meeting with government officials at the White House on the day of the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Credit: Cecil Stoughton. Official White House Photo/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library

Harvey Milk 

Harvey Bernard Milk (born May 22, 1930, New York – died November 27, 1978, San Francisco, California) was a civil and human rights activist and the first openly gay elected official in United States History.

Milk was assassinated, along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, by a disgruntled former City Supervisor, Dan White, a former police officer and former city supervisor who had clashed with Milk over LGBTQ issues in 1978.

After graduating from the New York State College for Teachers, now State University of New York, Milk had earlier in his life enlisted in the Navy, in 1951.

It was not until 2010 that serving while openly gay, lesbian or bisexual was officially allowed in the US military when Congress repealed the discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, or DADT, which prevented LGBTQ+ service members from serving while being honest about their sexuality.

DADT was passed in 1993 under President Clinton which allowed LGBTQ+ personnel to serve if they did not reveal their sexual orientation. The discriminatory policy was overturned by Obama 17 years later.

The US Navy has come a long way to not only accept but embrace its homosexual staff, naming a ship after one of its most famous gay veterans is one example. However, in the 1950s when Milk was in the service homosexuality was strictly banned.

In 1949, the Department of Defence anti-homosexuality regulations stated: "Homosexual personnel, irrespective of sex, should not be permitted to serve in any branch of the Armed Forces in any capacity, and prompt separation of known homosexuals from the Armed Forces is mandatory."

Milk resigned from the US Navy four years after joining, at the rank of lieutenant junior grade after he was questioned about being gay.

However, the discharge was honourable, although he strongly opposed the Vietnam War, Milk did not harbour resentment towards the Navy, even wearing his Navy belt buckle when he was gunned down.   

After leaving the military he had tried a variety of careers including working as a teacher and an actuarial statistician at an insurance firm. He also worked on Wall Street and at an investment firm from where he was fired for refusing to cut his hair.

Like many gay veterans, Milk moved to San Francisco and in 1972 he opened a camera shop with his partner. After facing backlash from local bigots for being one of two gay men trying to open a store, he founded the Castro Village Association, an organisation of LGBTQ+ businesses – the first of its kind in the country. Its success inspired other queer business owners to form similar associations across the United States.

In 1977, Milk won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Tragically he was only in office for a year when he was assassinated.

Despite his short time in office, Milk remains an inspiration to LGBTQ+ individuals worldwide for his dedication to human rights.

The activist had a feeling that he might be killed and recorded several wills and statements prior to his death. One of the tapes that he left to be read in the event of his assassination, contains the powerful now-famous quote:

“If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”

Today, plazas, schools, streets across San Francisco and America bear Harvey Milk’s name. Once the construction of USNS Harvey Milk is complete, so will a US Navy ship.

Milk, dressed for his brother's wedding in 1954

Lucy Stone

Lucy Stone (born August 13, 1818, West Brookfield, Massachusetts, US - died October 18, 1893, Dorchester Massachusetts) was a suffragist and abolitionist.

A pioneer in the woman’s suffrage movement in America, Stone began fighting for her rights while still a child.

She was one of nine children and was frustrated at the inequality that saw her clearly less intelligent brothers be encouraged to attend university while she was strictly banned from accessing education.

Nonetheless, she persisted and was almost thirty when she graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio.

In 1847, she became a lecturer for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. At the age of 37, she married Henry B. Blackwell, fellow abolitionist and brother to trailblazing physicians Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell.

Mrs Stone entered the marriage on the condition that it would be an equal union. She did not take her husband's last name, an unprecedented decision at the time that later got her barred from the voting roll in Massachusetts when women were allowed to vote in small local elections in some parts of the state in 1879.

Stone dedicated her life to women’s suffrage, founding the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) which later merged with Susan B. Anthony’s and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA)..

The pioneer lived by her principles and refused to pay property taxes siting the American “no taxation without representation” principle. Her household goods were impounded and sold. But she persevered, only getting more momentum to fight for equal rights for all as she got older.

Lucy Stone. Credit: Library of Congress

Robert F. Kennedy

Robert Francis Kennedy (born November 20, 1925, Massachusetts, US - died June 6, 1968, Los Angeles) was the younger brother of President John F. Kennedy and an advisor to the President during the Kennedy administration.

Robert was appointed as US attorney general in 1961 following his brother winning the Presidential election.

As attorney general he played a key role in protecting civil rights through administrative action, shaping the most comprehensive US civil rights law of the 20th century.

Kennedy fought tirelessly to end racial injustice across the county.  

He played a major role in creating the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 which helped bring an end to Jim Crow laws and ban segregation across the United States.

During his time in office the President’s younger brother expanded the US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division by 60 percent.

He was assassinated in 1968 while campaigning for the Democratic nomination for President.

Kennedy left behind his wife Ethel and 11 children. Several of whom became activists themselves.

Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth (born around 1797, New York, US - died November 26, 1883, Battle Creek, Michigan) was one of the world’s best known human rights activists. Born Isabella Baumfree to enslaved parents, she escaped for freedom in 1926, a year before slaves were emancipated in New York.

While not being able to read or write, Truth became an author, abolitionist, and activist fighting for the rights of black women.

Truth was the first black woman to sue a white man and win.

She sued her former ‘owner’ when he illegally sold her five-year-old son after the New York Anti-Slavery Law was passed.

Isabella took him to court and got her son back.

Fervently religious the pioneer was an evangelical Christian. It was her faith that prompted her to change her name to Sojourner Truth in 1843 and embarked on a journey across the United States to preach the gospel and speak out about oppression.

Sojourner was absorbed into the women’s rights movement in the 1850s and would continue to fight for woman’s suffrage for the rest of her life.

Around this time she settled in Battle Creek Missouri which remained as her home until her death in 1875.

During the Civil War, she supported black volunteer regiments with supplies and gathered recruits. In 1864, she went to Washington to desegregate streetcars and was invited to the White House by President Abraham Lincoln for the dedication to her work.

Sojourner Truth statue in Battle Creek Michigan. Credit: Alamy

Earl Warren 

Earl Warren (born March 19, 1891, Los Angeles, US - died July 9, 1974, Washington, DC) knew from a young age that he wanted to be a lawyer, he started listening to criminal cases at his local courthouse when he was still in high school.

He was admitted to the California bar on May 14, 1915, he was admitted to the California bar.

He served in public office uninterrupted for 49 years, retiring in 1969.

During his 14 years as district attorney, Warren gained a stellar reputation for being tough but fair on crime. As a prosecutor, he never had a conviction reversed by a higher court.

In 1953, Warren was appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as the fourteenth Chief Justice of the United States. 

He was responsible for changing voting laws that caused a major shift of legislative power from rural areas to more densely populated cities.

However, the reason why Earl Warren is on this list despite not being an activist is his contribution to human rights in the United States.

Among his most important decisions as Chief Justice was to pass the ruling that banned racial segregation in public schools, making it unconstitutional.

Despite being a republican Warren shared liberal views. Before becoming Chief Justice, he was the only person to have been elected to the governorship of California for three successive terms.

In 1946, he was the only governor in US history to win an election unopposed.