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    Robert F. Kennedy has a Navy fueling ship named after him

    From left to right: Secretary Ray Mabus, Ethel Kennedy, and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
    David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
    From left to right: Secretary Ray Mabus, Ethel Kennedy, and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

    The Navy on Tuesday formally announced that it would name a refueling ship in honor of Robert F. Kennedy, honoring the former US attorney general and senator at a ceremony that drew dozens of members of his storied political family.

    The USNS Robert F. Kennedy will be part of a class of fleet replenishment oilers named for civil rights leaders.

    US Representative Joe Kennedy III, who spoke at the ceremony, described the vessels as “the great backbone of a force that projects peace and stability to every corner of our planet, and a fitting tribute to the names they proudly bear.”

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    The congressman said Robert F. Kennedy, his grandfather and a Navy veteran, would have been proud of the designation.

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    “He said to those forgotten, your country sees you. Your country counts you. Your country needs you. This class of ships tells that story,” he said. “They are working ships: steady, sturdy vessels on which all other operations will depend. Humble masterpieces, built by hardworking American hands.”

    The ships fuel Navy vessels at sea and provide jet fuel for planes on aircraft carriers.

    Other people honored with the names of the new vessels include US representative and civil rights advocate John Lewis, slain gay rights leader Harvey Milk, and a former chief justice of the United States, Earl Warren.

    On Monday, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus made another appearance in Boston to name two additional ships after 19th century abolitionist leaders Lucy Stone and Sojourner Truth.

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    Speaking at the Tuesday ceremony for the Kennedy ship, which was held at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Dorchester, Mabus said Robert F. Kennedy’s work to push the integration of schools in the South had a profound effect on him.

    Mabus, a former Democratic governor of Mississippi, said he has long kept a picture that shows him in a crowd surrounding Robert F. Kennedy.

    Mabus also did his graduate thesis on Kennedy, examining what would have happened in the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination contests if he had not been assassinated.

    The Democratic National Convention in Chicago was marred by clashes between police and protesters. Richard Nixon eventually beat Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey.

    “Oh, the what-ifs,” Mabus said. “I concluded that he would have won, and Chicago would have been different. This country would have been different.”

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    There are no active Navy ships named for Kennedy family members, the Navy said, though that will change with the launch of the USNS Robert F. Kennedy and the forthcoming USS John F. Kennedy, an aircraft carrier.

    A previous aircraft carrier that bore the name of JFK was decommissioned in 2007. The USS Joseph Kennedy Jr., a destroyer named for the president’s older brother, was decommissioned in 1973 and is on exhibit at Battleship Cove in Fall River.

    Thirty-five members of the Kennedy family were at the naming event Tuesday, including his widow, Ethel Kennedy, and daughter Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who will be the honorary sponsors of the ship.

    In an interview, Ethel Kennedy said she had been moved by the tribute to her husband.

    “It’s such an honor,” she said of the ship. “I’m touched, and I can hardly wait to get out on it.”

    The Kennedy family, including Massachusetts Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III, at the ceremony.
    David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
    The Kennedy family, including Massachusetts congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III, at the ceremony.

    Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andyrosen.