Two Sundays from now, the Rev. Joseph Lowery will gather with admirers and well-wishers to celebrate his 92nd birthday.
To some, his age renders him just an old man, but nary a day passes when Lowery isn’t busy preaching and prodding America toward her best self.
Still, he admits time is running out, that he’s lived long past the biblical “three score and 10 years” the good Lord promises any of us.
“Every morning when I get up, I check to make sure it’s me,” he said, pinching himself recently. “Yeah, that’s me.”
He sat beneath an oil painting of himself, slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King and the first African-America president, Barack Obama, a sight unimaginable when he joined the civil rights movement as a young preacher in 1952.
Whether Lowery has remained all these years “to be a witness,” as the inscription on the painting suggests, is anyone’s guess. What’s clear is Lowery — whose life will be the subject of a musical production titled “I’ve Known Rivers” on his birthday, Oct. 6, at Morehouse College — has witnessed much.
He is not the man he used to be. His eyesight is dim, his hearing less sharp. His memory is fading.
“When you get my age, two things happen,” he said, “One, you forget things, and two, two, two.”
His voice falls and he laughs, but years have not erased the hope that saw him safely through decades of Jim Crow laws, King’s assassination, the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts and, yes, Obama’s re-election.
Then his latest trial. Just days ago, he found himself at the bedside of his wife, Evelyn, who’d suffered a stroke and was in critical condition. He and his family immediately turned to God in prayer. They asked the community to stand with them in faith.
Faith. It is why Lowery, considered the dean of the civil rights movement, still rises early each day. He dresses in a suit and tie, and most days his grandson Blake Osborne drives him to the offices of the Joseph Lowery Institute for Justice and Human Rights. He serves on its board and still presides every Tuesday over The People’s Agenda, a coalition of civil and human rights organizations. And it isn’t unusual to find him feeding the political aspirations of those who regularly pop up at the home seeking his advice and support.
“There’s no rest for the weary,” he said, joking.
He was born in 1921 in Alabama, when racial violence was as common as cotton. And for more than half his life, Lowery’s feet have been planted firmly in the fight for equality for all, especially African-Americans.
In 1952, he helped launch a drive to end discrimination in Mobile, Ala.. He co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and later led it for almost 20 years. He marched from Selma to Montgomery and campaigned against South African apartheid. He led an effort to remove the Confederate battle flag from the Georgia state flag and helped the city of Atlanta prepare for the 1996 Olympics. In 2008, he delivered the benediction at Obama’s first inauguration. And just weeks ago he urged state legislators from across the country to fight laws he and others believe were put in place to suppress voters.
“I’ve reached places I never thought I’d reach,” Lowery said.
His only regret is his father, who died in 1956, wasn’t here to witness it.
“How joyful it would be if my daddy could see me at the White House and know that the president called me on the phone,” he said. “If he’s looking down from heaven, he probably doesn’t believe it.”
The idea didn’t even seem like a possibility when he’d talk to King, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy and others about whether they’d ever see a black president.
“I was older than they, and I knew I wouldn’t live to see it,” he said. “Nobody in the bunch thought they’d see it, but we didn’t know God’s agenda. Not only did I live to see it, I participated in it and then got to see him re-elected, which was in a sense more powerful than the election.”
Within months after Lowery offered the inaugural benediction, Obama tapped him for yet another honor: the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian award.
It was a crowning achievement in a life stocked full of awards, accolades and trophies, some displayed in glass cases at his Cascade home, others lining entire walls or lodged deeply in his heart.
Still, he believes his work is not done.
“We got more black police officers, and we still have more racial profiling. We got more blacks in law enforcement, and we got more Trayvon (Martins); got more blacks holding high office and yet we have 30 more states trying to knock out our right to vote,” he said. “That’s the paradox in which we find ourselves today.”
It’s clear it is Lowery’s heart that endears him to so many.
His daughter Cheryl, the executive director of the Lowery Institute and the youngest of his three children, describes him as a teddy bear who, despite his age, is on his game.
It’s not unusual for instance, for Lowery to phone her at 2 a.m. asking about a news release.
“I’m like, dude, go to bed,” she said, laughing.
“I have adored him my entire life,” she said. “To have the opportunity to live past just a daughter’s adoration and enter an adult, respectful relationship with him, to talk about critical issues facing our country, to still have his counsel, his friendship, his confidence is a blessing.
“I learn so much from him every day. If he makes a mistake, he errs with his head, not his heart.”
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