Civil rights leader to be featured on 2023 postage stamp

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John Lewis, the late Georgia Congressman who dedicated his life to fighting for civil rights and voting rights and believed in a code of “good trouble,” will be honored with a 2023 postage stamp.

The stamp, one of seven designs announced this week by the U.S. Postal Service, features a portrait of Lewis taken by Time magazine photographer Marco Grob in 2013.

“This is such an appropriate and fitting honor for a man who is truly one of the founding fathers of our modern democracy,” said Janai Nelson, president and director-counsel of the Legal Defense Fund. “There’s something really beautifully universal about acknowledgement on a postage stamp. It’s a national honor, so it’s delightful to see John Lewis recognized in this way.”

According to the postal service, the margin paper, or selvage, attached to the stamp sheet will include a photo taken of Lewis in 1963 by photographer Steve Schapiro in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

“Lewis spent more than 30 years in Congress steadfastly defending and building on key civil rights gains that he helped achieve in the 1960s,” the postal service said in a statement. “Even in the face of hatred and violence, as well as some 45 arrests, Lewis remained resolute in his commitment to what he liked to call ‘good trouble.’”

Lewis’ lifelong commitment to fighting for a better society through civil disobedience makes him worthy of such an honor, said Hasan Kwame Jeffries, an associate professor of history at Ohio State University.

“Having a postage stamp of John Lewis isn’t going to lift anybody out of poverty, but there’s real value in honoring not just the individual but what he stood for in this particular way,” Jeffries said. “It says to the nation as a whole that this is one of our iconic figures, who by being on a postage stamp really represents what America was, is and could be.”

Who was John Lewis?

Lewis, who served 17 terms as a U.S. representative and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor by Barack Obama in 2011, died at age 80 of pancreatic cancer in 2020.

In his more than three decades as a Congressman, Lewis, the son of Alabama sharecroppers, continued to fight segregation and discrimination in the Deep South – the same causes for which he endured numerous arrests, verbal abuse and personal injury in the 1960s.

State troopers swing billy clubs to break up a civil rights voting march in Selma, Ala., March 7, 1965. About 600 people, including John Lewis, who would go on to serve 17 terms as a U.S. congressman, were attacked by state troopers as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge leading out of Selma. TV cameras broadcast the assault in what became known as "Bloody Sunday" with demonstrations across the country over the next two days supporting the marchers. (AP Photo/File)

In 1965, he helped organize the march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in which he and other demonstrators were attacked by state troopers with billy clubs and tear gas while crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, an event known as “Bloody Sunday.” Lewis suffered a fractured skull, and the brutality, televised across the country, would prompt quick passage of the Voting Rights Act.

What is ‘good trouble’?

As one of the founding members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which conducted lunch counter sit-ins and voter registration drives, Lewis’ civil disobedience occurred during the heyday of the fight against segregation.

“One of the ways that segregationists sought to undermine the movement was by arresting people, throwing them into jail and calling them troublemakers,” Jeffries said. “For Lewis, the idea of good trouble is that when you’re dealing with an unjust society and unjust laws and challenging them in the way they need to be, that that’s the kind of trouble we need to shake up society.”

Jeffries hopes the stamp not only helps cement Lewis’ legacy for those who appreciate his influence but might prompt younger generations or those with only passing familiarity with Lewis to examine his life and values more deeply.

“This wasn’t someone just waving a flag who was uncritical of American life,” Jeffries said. “This was somebody who challenged the status quo. So having him represented in this way is really powerful.”

US President Barack Obama hugs Georgia congressman John Lewis during a March 2015 event marking the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

What other new stamps are coming?

The other 2023 stamps announced by the postal service include designs dedicated to skateboard art, the Florida Everglades and children’s author Tomie dePaola. They join others previously announced in October, and more are expected to come.

The designs are preliminary and subject to change, the postal service said.

“The things John Lewis did, he didn’t do to get on a postage stamp,” Jeffries said. “He is on a stamp not because he felt that America was perfect, but because he felt that it was imperfect,” Jeffries said. “He wanted to create a better society.”

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