Crusader Staff Report
He was one of the last giants of the Civil Rights Movement.
Today, Black leaders across the country are remembering the Reverend Joseph Lowery, the co-founder of Southern Christian Leadership Conference who died March 27. He was 98.
Often called the “dean” of the civil rights movement, Lowery was a soldier in the movement with the Reverends Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson.
He was born on October 6, 1921 in Huntsville, Alabama, the son of a small business owner and a mother who was a part-time schoolteacher. In 1950, Lowery married Evelyn Gibson; they had three daughters. Lowery also had two sons from a previous marriage.
In his hometown, cross burnings by the Klu Klux Klan were a way of life during the segregated times of Jim Crow. Lowery said he wanted to work as an activist after an encounter with a policeman at his father’s sweets shop when he was 12 or 13 years old.
“A big white policeman was coming in, and he punched me in the stomach with his nightstick,” Lowery told the Atlanta Tribune magazine in 2004.
“He said, ‘Get back n——-. Don’t you see a white man coming in the door?’”
After college, Lowery became an ordained Methodist minister who served congregations in Alabama and Georgia. He later organized marches in Selma and Birmingham, Alabama.
Lowery served nearly half a century as a pastor, spending much of that time with Central United Methodist and Cascade United Methodist in Atlanta, Georgia.
With racial tensions rising in cities across the country, in 1957, Lowery helped start the Southern Christian Leadership Conference civil rights organization with Martin Luther King Jr. The organization’s activism helped lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which President Lyndon Johnson signed.
“We had been through sit-ins and kneel-ins where we had been beat up and locked up and cussed out and locked out,” Lowery said in a 1994 interview. “It was a milestone, a watershed. It helped America take off the cloak of official segregation.”
Lowery later served as the SCLC’s president for more than two decades, leading protests for civil rights in South Africa and peace in the Middle East.
He remained an activist even after retiring in 1992, fighting for gay rights and election reform, and against capital punishment.
“We had to remain ever vigilant … and energetic to protect those rights, lest the clock be turned back,” Lowery said.
He vowed never to seek political office, like some of his fellow activists, because he said he could achieve more for the civil rights movement from among the people.
“He was a champion for civil rights, a challenger of injustice, a dear friend to the King family. Thank you, sir,” the King Center tweeted Friday night.
Lowery started the Coalition for the People’s Agenda in 1998 to educate and register new voters, and he continued to be involved in the cause until his passing.
In 2006, at Coretta Scott King’s funeral, he blasted President George W. Bush’s decision to go to war against Iraq.
“We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over there, but Coretta knew, and we know that there are weapons of misdirection right down here,” Lowery said. “Millions without health insurance. Poverty abounds. For war, billions more, but no more for the poor.”
In 2009, Lowery delivered the benediction at President Obama’s inauguration in January. Six months later, Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“As one, we can poke you in the eye,” he told the Atlanta Tribune, holding up one finger, then shaping his hand into a fist. “But if we come together, we can knock you out.”