He sat before the well-heeled crowd at the White House, the small-town Southern preacher, next to a former Supreme Court justice, theatrical and athletic stars, lions of politics and luminaries of science.
Less than 60 years ago, Atlanta Rev. Joseph Lowery and black men like him could not sit at the same lunch counter or share a bus seat with white people.
Yet there Lowery was Wednesday in the gilded East Room of the White House, the racism and anger and struggle that had filled so many of his 87 years at least temporarily set aside as he was called to accept the nation’s highest civilian honor.
As Lowery took his slow, careful steps across the stage to where President Barack Obama placed the Presidential Medal of Freedom around his neck, his solemn face summed up the words he had used to describe his feelings in a reflective moment a few hours earlier.
“I am humbled,” Lowery said.
The old warrior wiped away tears as he sat back down.
Lowery had visited the White House before. The man who marched beside Martin Luther King Jr. in Birmingham and became known as the dean of the civil rights movement gave the benediction at Obama’s inauguration in January.
But this trip was different and special in many ways, Lowery said, and not just for the medal bestowed upon him. Here was a black man accepting the country’s highest civilian award from the nation’s first black president.
“Change is in the wind,” he said. “We’ve come a long way — a long way. But unfortunately we still have a long way to go.”
Lowery described the day as a dream for civil rights, but not the end of the dream. Among others honored alongside him were a native American chief, black and Hispanic artists, gay athletes and politicians, Bangladeshi financiers and a disabled scientist.
“We never expected the White House would become the people’s house,” Lowery said. Then in his typically pointed language, he added, “It’s becoming nearer and nearer to being the people’s house and not just the white people’s house.”
Lowery was one of 16 recipients of the Medal of Freedom, an award established by President Harry Truman in 1945 to recognize civilians for their World War II efforts. In 1963, President John Kennedy resumed bestowing the award to honor distinguished nonmilitary service to the country.
Among others awarded Medals of Freedom Wednesday were Kennedy’s brother, Sen. Ted Kennedy, who was not present but his daughter accepted it for him, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, as well as movie actor Sidney Poitier, women’s tennis pioneer Billie Jean King and physicist Stephen Hawking.
Obama described Lowery as “a giant of the Moses generation of civil rights leaders,” and acknowledged his role in the movement that ultimately made it possible for a black man to become president.
“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,” Obama said.
Along with helping lead the civil rights movement, Lowery was a founder and longtime president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He currently runs an Atlanta group called the Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda, which holds voter registration drives and advocates change in government for rectifying racial and social issues.
The award and the ornate reception at the White House was a far cry from the days when Lowery was regularly arrested for civil disobedience while at home, his family regularly received bomb and death threats.
“I kind of thought everybody’s daddy went to jail,” said Cheryl Lowery Osborne, Lowery’s youngest daughter, who accompanied her two sisters and mother to the ceremony. “It took me a while to really kind of wrap my mind around the fact” that her father was different.
“Throughout his life, some have called him crazy,” Obama said in his remarks. “But one of my favorite sermons that I heard Dr. Lowery once deliver, he said: “There’s good crazy and there’s bad crazy ... and sometimes you need a little bit of that good crazy to make the world a better place.”
Joseph Lowery was one of 16 Medal of Freedom recipients. Others are:
● Nancy Goodman Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the world’s leading breast cancer grass-roots organization.
● Pedro José Greer, Jr., physician and founder of Camillus Health Concern, an agency that provides medical care to over 10,000 homeless patients a year in the city of Miami.
● Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist who overcame severe physical disability to become the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University.
● Jack Kemp, the late former U.S. Congressman and one-time Republican nominee for vice president (1996).
● Sen. Edward Kennedy, who has served in the U.S. Senate for 46 years.
● Billie Jean King, Hall of Fame professional tennis player.
● Joe Medicine Crow-High Bird, the last living Plains Indian war chief and historian.
● Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official from a major city in the United States.
● Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman ever to sit on the United States Supreme Court.
● Sidney Poitier, the groundbreaking black movie star.
● Chita Rivera, Hispanic actress who has won two Tony Awards.
● Mary Robinson, first female President of Ireland.
● Janet Davison Rowley, American human geneticist and the first scientist to identify a chromosomal translocation as the cause of leukemia and other cancers.
● Desmond Tutu, the Anglican Archbishop emeritus who was a leading anti-apartheid activist in South Africa.
● Muhammad Yunus, a global leader in anti-poverty efforts, who pioneered the use of “micro-loans” to provide credit to poor individuals without collateral.
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