President Barack Obama places the Presidential Medal of Freedom around the neck of the Rev . Joseph E. Lowery. Lowery was an early supporter of Obama’s 2008 presidential bid and would deliver the benediction at his 2009 inauguration.

Obama on Lowery: ‘He carried the baton longer and surer than almost anybody’

Barack Obama, who was prayed over by the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery on that bitterly cold day in 2009 when he was inaugurated as the nation’s first black president, joined the chorus of those mourning the death of the iconic civil rights leader.

“What a joy it was to watch him pray and preach. I took heart in him saying, ‘We ain’t going back. We’ve come too far, marched too long, prayed too hard, wept too bitterly, bled too profusely, and died too young to let anybody turn back the clock on our journey to justice,’” Obama said Saturday afternoon.

Lowery, noted as the “Dean of the Civil Rights Movement,” died Friday in his Atlanta home of what family members say were natural causes.

He was 98. As of Saturday afternoon, a family spokesman said funeral arrangements were not finalized.

In a 2008 interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Rev. Joseph Lowery talks about why he never stopped fighting for Human and Civil Rights. (Video by Ryon Horne)

Read and sign the online guestbook for Joseph Lowery

As people reflect on his life, more than 60 years after young men like  Lowery, John Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr. set out to change America, Andrew Young said many would be surprised at how different they all were from each other.

“Most people think of all of us as the same — that we were all Baptist and AME,” said Young, a fellow civil rights leader and former mayor of Atlanta. “But Joe was Methodist. Hosea (Williams) was Presbyterian and I was United Church of Christ. We had a much more diverse number than people thought.”

Nowhere was that diversity of thought more evident than in 2007 during the fight for the Democratic Party’s nomination for the 2008 presidential election. Young, like many black leaders, was going the traditional, establishment route, supporting Hillary Clinton, the wife of a former president whom Young had known and worked with since she was in college.

Lowery saw a different path to the White House and publicly backed Obama, a young senator from Illinois whom few people had even heard of.

The Rev. Joseph Lowery, of Atlanta, gives the benediction during the inauguration.
Photo: Alex Wong / Pool / MCT

“He was one of the first people to recognize that Obama could be president,” Young said. “I didn’t know Obama at all. But Joe could always recognize talent. And he not only recognized the talent but he was committed not to let race be a barrier against running this country.”

Obama would beat Clinton in the primary and take the White House. Lowery would deliver the benediction at Obama’s inauguration and be awarded one of his administration’s first Presidential Medals of Freedom.

Young laughs at the recollection.

“Joe was right,” Young said.

Remembering the Rev. Joseph Lowery

On Saturday, thoughts of Lowery brought laughs, smiles and tears from across the country from those mourning him.

“We are grateful for what he did for this country. He carried the baton longer and surer than almost anybody,” Obama said. “It falls to the rest of us now to pick it up and never stop moving forward until we finish what he started — that journey to justice.”

Ambassador Andrew Young (left) and Lowery get together in 2017. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

“With the passing of Rev. Joseph Lowery, the world lost a spiritual leader - a sage who understood that politics did not stand separate from who we are but told the story of who we are willing to be,” said former state legislator and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. “May God’s face smile upon his newest angel, peace to his beloveds.”

Rev. Joseph E. Lowery speaks at a 2013 event in Atlanta announcing state lawmakers from around the county have formed an alliance they say will combat restrictive voting laws.  Former state legislator and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams is in the background. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)
Photo: David Goldman/AP

A native of Huntsville, Alabama, Lowery moved to Atlanta in 1968, following the assassination of King. In Atlanta, he pastored two churches and served as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in making his mark on the city.

“While he was a world-renowned leader of the civil rights movement, he was a monumental part of our village, known as Atlanta,” said Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. “Dr. Lowery has been an ever-present part of the fabric of Atlanta, from his leadership of the SCLC, to his pastoring Cascade United Methodist Church, to simply his participation in so many events, big and small, throughout our community. While we will truly miss his presence here on earth, as he often reminded us, we will see him in the morning.”

Thank you Rev. Lowery: An editorial cartoon from Mike Luckovich

Bernice King, King’s youngest daughter and the CEO of the King Center, said that it was “hard to imagine a world or an Atlanta” without the man she knew as “Uncle Joe.”

“I’m grateful for a life well-lived and for its influence on mine,” King said.

Valerie Jarrett, a top adviser to Obama, called Lowery a “decent man with a deliciously mischievous sense of humor,” while the

The Rev. Al Sharpton called him “a mentor, pastor and friend to me.”

“The world is a better place because of him and I’m a better person because of his investment in me,” Sharpton said.

The Atlanta Falcons organization tweeted that he was “a true leader and icon in our city,” and the Rev. Jamal Harrison Bryant, senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, remembered that Lowery was his first guest speaker at his previous church in 2000.

“Dr. Joseph Lowery represents everything that is honorable about public service. He is literally the standard for moral and effective leadership. The civil rights movement has no greater champion and generations of underserved and underrepresented communities owe him a debt of gratitude,” Bryant said. “After we pause to reflect on his immense legacy, the greatest tribute we can make is to commit ourselves to the work and the people he cared so deeply about.”

Civil Rights leader Rev. Joseph Lowery fires up the crowd at a Democratic election night party in 2008. RICH ADDICKS / raddicks@ajc.com
Photo: Rich Addicks/AJC

Lowery never publicly endorsed a Democrat for 2020, but both of the leading candidates offered condolences Saturday.

“Last night, the great Rev. Joseph E. Lowery passed away, leaving an indelible mark on our country’s history towards progress,” said Democratic Party front-runner Joe Biden. “He never once wavered in his spirit and in the resolve to end injustice — wherever he saw it. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.”

“Rev. Joseph Lowery was a titan of civil rights,” said Bernie Sanders. “He leaves behind an incredible legacy of fighting for justice that we must carry forward every day. Our thoughts are with the Lowery family.”

On his social media pages, filmmaker Tyler Perry posted a series of photographs taken in 2012 at his old Atlanta studio of Lowery and Obama. In one of the photos, America’s first black president bowed down to what Perry called “the greatness of the man who stood before both of us. Presidential humanity at its best.

“(Obama) knew what I wish the whole world knew. Dr. Lowery was a man that helped move this country to a better place,” Perry said. “We should all be grateful for his incredible work through the civil rights movement all the way up until his passing. The man was amazing, loving, kind, funny, a truth-teller and a healer.”

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