Remembering Rev. Joseph Lowery, the ‘Dean’ of the Civil Rights Movement

Theodora Aidoo March 30, 2020
Southern Christian Leadership Conference President Joseph E. Lowery during an interview in his Atlanta office, Friday, July 19, 1985. - Pic Credit: Ric Feld/AP

Reverend Dr Echols Joseph Lowery co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Rev. Martin Luther King. Referred to as the “Dean” of the Civil Rights Movement, Lowery’s early civil rights struggles were crucial to the inauguration of the country’s first black president.

Lowery delivered the benediction at President Barack Obama‘s inauguration in 2009 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Obama later that year. “Born and raised in Jim Crow Alabama, preaching in his blood, the Rev. Joseph Lowery is a giant of the Moses generation of civil rights leaders,” Obama said at the ceremony. “It was just King, Lowery and a few others, huddled in Montgomery, who laid the groundwork for the bus boycott and the movement that was to follow.”

As a young man, he survived bombings and several attempts on his life, including a brutal 1979 Ku Klux Klan attack that nearly claimed the life of his wife, Evelyn and as an older man, he beat back prostate cancer.

Rev Joseph Lowery
Rev. Joseph Lowery gave the benediction during the inauguration of President Barack Obama – Pic Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Rev. Lowery was born in Huntsville, Alabama on October 6, 1921 to a teacher and a shopkeeper. His parents were LeRoy Lowery and Dora Fackler Lowery. His great-grandfather, the Rev. Green Echols, was the first black pastor of Lakeside Methodist Church in Huntsville.

Although his mother took him to church and made him sing and speak before the congregation, the young Lowery had other plans other than being a preacher. He wanted to be a lawyer.

After high school, he attended both Knoxville College and Alabama A&M University before getting his undergraduate degree from Paine College in Augusta. The young Lowery experienced firsthand the brutalities of the Jim Crow South and would spend his life fighting for racial justice.

During summer in 1933, when he was only 11 years old, Lowery recalls stepping out of his father’s candy store in Huntsville, Alabama, when a white police officer walked up.

“He hit me in the belly and said, ‘Get back, (N-word). Don’t you see a white man coming in?’” the Rev. Lowery recalled in a 2001 Atlanta Journal-Constitution interview. “I went home and looked for my father’s pearl-handled .32. I got it and was gonna look for that cop.”

But as he got to the porch, his father, LeRoy Lowery, appeared and asked why he was crying. His father took the gun and gave him a lecture. “I had never seen my father at home during the day, except on Sundays,” Lowery said. “I don’t know why he came home that day. But I am glad he did.”

But for that, Lowery said, he probably would have been beaten, jailed or lynched that afternoon. While at Knoxville College, he married Agnes Moore and had two sons, LeRoy Lowery III and Joseph Lowery II.

The couple divorced and in the mid-1940s, Lowery moved to Birmingham, where he edited a weekly, the “Birmingham Informer,” to earn money for law school. In 1947, Lowery and a Clark College student named Evelyn Gibson, the daughter of the Rev. H.B. Gibson Sr married on April 5, 1948. They had three daughters, Yvonne, Karen and Cheryl.

Instead of law school, Lowery attended Payne Theological Seminary, Wayne State University, Garrett Theological Seminary and the Chicago Ecumenical Institute to study religion.

In 1949, for $21 a week, Lowery got his first church appointment at the East Thomas United Methodist in Birmingham. “I couldn’t preach then,” he said. “But very politely they would say, ‘I enjoyed your sermon.’ I remember one lady said, ‘Keep on trying, son.’”

As a young Methodist minister in Mobile, Alabama in the early 1950s, Lowery helped organize one of the first protests which was aimed at desegregating city buses.

Lowery recalled sitting in the bus seats reserved for whites, “Everybody cleansed themselves, purged themselves of weapons, and had prayer,” he said. “And we took out on the bus route sitting in the front of the bus.”

Lowery aided coordination of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, the non-violent movement that desegregated the city’s public transportation and led to the formation of the “Southern Christian Leadership Conference”.

He served as vice president of the group. Lowery marched, survived jail, and had his property seized by the state of Alabama but that didn’t stop him. Lowery led the delegation that delivered demands to segregationist Governor George Wallace in the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.

Rev. Joseph Lowery
Southern Christian Leadership Conference President Dr. Joseph E. Lowery seated center, at a press conference at the U.N. Church Center in New York, 1979 – Lederhandler/AP

Wallace turned state troopers on marchers as they crossed Selma Edmund Pettus Bridge and that violent confrontation prompted passage of the Voting Rights Act. The number of black elected officials in the country would rise from less than 300 in 1965 to nearly 10,000 by 2005. “It changed the face of the nation,” Lowery said.

On May 26, 1979, Lowery led a march in Decatur, Ala., in support of Tommy Lee Hines, a mentally impaired black man who was accused of raping three white women and convicted by an all-white jury.

In the same year, while President Jimmy Carter was inside Ebenezer Baptist Church receiving the King Center’s Martin Luther King Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize, Lowery was reportedly outside leading a protest march against the Georgia-born president. Lowery said Carter had not done enough as president to address unemployment among minorities.

Rev. Joseph Lowery
The Rev. Joseph Lowery speaks out against the war in Iraq during a rally in Piedmont Park in Atlanta on Saturday, April 1, 2006 – Mark Young /AP

“We felt betrayed, since African-Americans had such a decisive role in his election. We vowed to demonstrate our disagreement at the first opportunity,” Lowery said.

For decades, he remained at the helm of the SCLC and he addressed a broad range of issues both locally and internationally ranging from apartheid in South Africa and Palestinian liberation to police brutality and states’ rights.

After nearly 70 years of marriage, Lowery lost his wife, Evelyn Lowery on September 26, 2013. Lowery pastored churches in Atlanta until he retired from the pulpit in 1992 at age 70. But even in his retirement, Lowery continued to lead social deliberations. He was among the first old-guard civil rights figures to advocate for LGBT rights.

“I can’t (retire) because Martin is gone. Ralph (Abernathy) is gone. Hosea (Williams) is gone. I’m still here. God kept me here because I have been speaking the truth. Because I stand up against war and racism,” he said at an event marking his 85th birthday in 2006.

During the funeral of Coretta Scott King in January 2006, Lowery was in the pulpit of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, in front of a crowd of 20,000 people and a television audience of millions. President Bush, along with three former presidents – Carter, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush – sat behind him and he criticized Bush over the war in Iraq.

Lowery and his late wife Evelyn established the Lowery Institute for Justice and Human Rights at Clark Atlanta University that is now helping a new generation to learn how to forge change through non-violent tactics.

In 2001, Ashby Street renamed Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard and a lecture series created in his name in the Atlanta Public Schools system.

He never relented in his efforts to urge blacks to exercise their hard-won rights by registering to vote. Urging young people to get to the polls prior to the 2016 election, he said “We labored in vain if you don’t vote.”

Lowery received several awards. He got the NAACP Lifetime Achievement Award at its 1997 convention calling him the “dean of the civil rights movement”. He received the inaugural Walter P. Reuther Humanitarian Award from Wayne State University in 2003. He has also received the Martin Luther King Jr. Center Peace Award and the National Urban League’s Whitney M. Young Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award, in 2004.

Ebony named him one of the 15 greatest black preachers, describing him as, “the consummate voice of biblical social relevancy, a focused voice, speaking truth to power.” Lowery also received several honorary doctorates from colleges and universities including, Dillard University, Morehouse College, Alabama State University, University of Alabama in Huntsville, and Emory University.

In 2004, Lowery was honored at the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, located in Atlanta, Georgia. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama, on July 30, 2009 and he was also given the Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

Reverend Doctor Echols Joseph Lowery, the man whose work on civil and human rights left an indelible mark on the United States, the world, and human history passed away Friday night – March 27, 2020. He was 98 years old.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: March 30, 2020


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