Remembering the Rev. Joseph Lowery

The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery speaks at his 94th birthday celebration on Oct. 6, 2015. (AJC file photo: Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

In every man’s life, there is a day of destiny.

Joseph Echols Lowery’s came on a bright summer day in 1933, when he was only 11.

As he stepped out of his father’s candy store in Huntsville, Alabama, 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.

Explore>> Photos from Rev. Joseph E. Lowery’s life

Certainly his life would have been different. He probably would not have become one of America’s most beloved preachers and human rights activists.

He would not have helped the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where he remained at the forefront of the civil rights movement for more than half a century.

He would not have stood before a packed church at Coretta Scott King’s funeral and blasted George W. Bush over the war in Iraq — as the president sat a few feet behind him.

And on a cold January day in 2009, he would not have delivered the benediction at the inauguration of America's first black president. Nor would that president, a few months later, have pinned the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Lowery's chest while tears — this time of joy — streamed down the elder man's face.

Lowery said that fateful day in 1933 was his introduction to civil rights.

“Although,” he added, “by being born black, I can’t ever remember not being in the movement.”

Coretta King once said Lowery had “led more marches and been in the trenches more than anyone since Martin.”

Now Lowery, too, has led his last march.

Lowery died Friday night in his Atlanta home with his daughters at his side.

The civil rights icon was 98.

Photos and story: Horse-drawn carriage bears the Rev. Joseph Lowery to Westview Cemetery

Explore>> Read and sign the online guestbook for Joseph Lowery

“Rev. Joseph Lowery was a fighter for civil rights,” said Congressman John Lewis. “He spoke up spoke out he never gave up. He marched and he protested all across America. We mourn his passing this evening. He made a lasting contribution and he will always be remembered for his role to help change and make our country and our world a better place. I had the great honor of serving on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference board with him. His presence and leadership will be deeply missed.”

060207 - LITHONIA, GA -- The funeral service for Coretta Scott King, wife of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was held Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2006 at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. Rev. Joseph Lowery (cq) gets a laugh from former President Bill Clinton and his wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton, after he honored King. Left is Pres. George Bush and his wife, Laura. (RENEE HANNANS HENRY/AJC staff)

Credit: RENEE HANNANS HENRY

Credit: RENEE HANNANS HENRY

Dean of the movement

Almost from the day he moved to Atlanta in 1968, the always dapper Lowery was one of the city’s key social, religious and civil rights figures.

Named one of the 15 greatest black preachers by Ebony magazine in 1993, and dubbed the Dean of the Civil Rights Movement by the NAACP, he was a much-sought, often-quoted speaker.

He never shied away from controversy and remained a tough, but likable, lightning rod, unafraid to speak his mind. He rarely apologized for anything he said, lashing out at both political parties, denouncing U.S. foreign policy, even calling the 1983 invasion of Grenada “premature and opportunistic” and “probably illegal and immoral.”

He rebuked his “colored brothers and sisters who think that all they have to do is wear a three-piece suit, a gold chain and Miss Clairol, and they’ve got it made.” And he blasted black leaders — including former Atlanta mayor and ambassador Andrew Young — who backed Hillary Clinton for president in 2008 over Barack Obama.

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

Even in his 90s, he was still Atlanta’s most active civil rights voice, overshadowing other organizational leaders with his intellect and wit. Many continued to seek his counsel, and he remained vocal on issues such as the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, Mo., and the nominations of two conservative Georgia judges.

Lowery often said he was grateful to have lived so long, considering that King died at 39.

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

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

When asked how he was doing, he would always say, “I am just an old man, doing young things. I am tired, but happy.”

The reluctant preacher

Lowery was born Oct. 6, 1921, to LeRoy Lowery and Dora Fackler Lowery in Huntsville.

Although his great-grandfather, the Rev. Green Echols, was the first black pastor of Lakeside Methodist Church in Huntsville. and his mother dragged him to church and made him sing and speak before the congregation, the young Joseph resisted any urge to become 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.

While at Knoxville College, he was briefly married to 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., were set up on a blind date by Evelyn Gibson’s younger sister.

“We were both young, but he was old for his age even then,” Evelyn Lowery said in 1985. “He was already talking on the same level as my father in terms of maturity and depth.”

They dated for a year and married on April 5, 1948. They had three daughters, Yvonne, Karen and Cheryl. Lowery had 12 grandchildren.

After nearly 70 years of marriage, Evelyn Lowery died on Sept. 26, 2013.

The Rev. Gibson kept insisting that his son-in-law was called to preach.

“It worried me a good bit,” Lowery said in a 1986 AJC interview. “The thing that held me back was I was always interested in social issues. Somehow, I never saw the relationship between man’s relation to man and man’s relation to God.”

Eventually, he told the AJC in 1988, his father-in-law’s insistence had its effect: “I decided that there was no point in my continuing to run from this thing.”

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

In a Sept. 25, 1963 photo, The Rev. Martin Luther King,Jr., left, Joseph E. Lowery, and Wyatt Tee Walker, right, executive director of the SCLC, meet at First African Baptist Church, for the SCLC convention in Richmond, Va. The Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, who helped assemble the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail” from notes the incarcerated King wrote on paper scraps and newspaper margins, died Tuesday morning, Jan. 23, 2018, in Chester, Va., said his daughter Patrice Walker Powell. He was either 88 or 89. Family records showed different years of birth, said Powell, who confirmed his death.

‘Keep on trying, son’

In 1949, for $21 a week, Lowery was appointed to his first church, East Thomas United Methodist, “out on the edge of the ghetto 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.’ ”

A year later, he moved to Alexander City, Ala., where he worked for three years for $30 to $40 a week. In 1953 he transferred to Mobile, Ala., to take over the Warren Street Methodist Church.

“That’s where I had my baptism of fire in the movement,” he said of his nine-year stay in Mobile.

An early supporter of the Montgomery bus boycott that King organized in 1955, Lowery organized one in Mobile that achieved quicker success. That got King’s attention.

In February, 1957, Lowery, King and Abernathy were among a group of ministers and civil rights workers who formed the SCLC. King was elected president and Lowery was his vice president.

With the SCLC, Lowery intensified his civil rights work, while he grew as a minister.

He spent two years in Nashville as administrative assistant to a Methodist bishop before returning to Birmingham to preach at St. Paul United Methodist Church, the same church his father-in-law had once pastored.

In Nashville, he chaired the Coordinating Committee on Civil Rights and was involved in desegregating hotels and restaurants. In Birmingham, he led efforts to add blacks to the police force and increase employment opportunities.

Rev. Joseph Lowery smiles as he honors King with some humor, with Bishop Eddie Long in the background.

Credit: RENEE HANNANS HENRY

Credit: RENEE HANNANS HENRY

God and the governor

In 1965, at the conclusion of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, Lowery led the delegation that delivered a set of demands to Gov. George Wallace.

“I challenged him as a Methodist,” Lowery recalled later. “I said, ‘I don’t come in here as a civil rights leader, I come as a Methodist pastor to a Methodist layman.’ I said, ‘God’s going to hold you accountable.’”

Wallace immediately objected, Lowery said.

“He said, ‘Well I’m not doing anything.’ I said, ‘Yes, you are. You’re inflaming people. You caused (white civil rights volunteer) Viola Liuzzo’s death. You get on television raving and ranting …’ Wallace was never the same after that. Always after that, he attacked the federal government. He didn’t attack blacks.”

In 1967, Lowery was elevated to the chairmanship of the SCLC board.

The next year, three months after King’s assassination, Lowery transferred from St. Paul to Atlanta’s Central United Methodist Church, one of the most prestigious black pulpits in the South.

“I don’t distinguish between my ministry and SCLC. I see SCLC as the alter-ego of the church,” Lowery said in 1986. “I consider human relations to be a religious question. … Human relations are based on our relations with God.”

In 2001, he said: “The characteristics of the kingdom are the goals of justice, peace, fellowship and ending hunger and homelessness. I can’t see leading people to make heaven their homes without their homes on Earth being heavenly.”

At Central, the congregation grew to more than 2,000 members, and Lowery led them in constructing a 240-unit housing complex for low-income families. He remained at Central for 18 years before transferring to Cascade United Methodist.

With the departure of Abernathy, he was elected SCLC president in 1977, taking over the group at a time when interest in civil rights had waned.“He, more than anybody … kept the SCLC together throughout the ’70s and ’80s,” said King and SCLC biographer David Garrow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar on the civil rights movement.

Andrew Young, who was also on the front lines of the movement, said men like Lowery, who continued to fight for civil and human rights, long after the movement was supposedly over, never once considered backing down.

“We had nowhere else to go. We were committed to redeeming the soul of America from the triple evils of race, war and poverty,” Young said. “As long as there was racism, war and poverty, we had to do something about it. We made a lifelong commitment. Dr. King had given his life for it. So those of us left felt we had to keep on going.”

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.

Evelyn Lowery, who often marched with her husband, was there, too. But because the Ku Klux Klan had promised violence, Lowery asked her to drive behind the marchers in her pale green 1977 Buick.

A riot broke out. At least two bullets passed through the car — one barely missing her head. She escaped shaken, but unharmed. Lowery still owns the car.

Aug. 4, 2015 - Atlanta - After Dr. Joseph Lowery (seated, left) delivered closing remarks, everyone joined in singing "I've got a feeling" including Michael Thurmond (left), Mayor Kasim Reed, John Lewis, Helen Butler and Martin Luther King III. Andrew Young, Dr. Joseph Lowery, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King III and Congressman John Lewis joined others at the 50th Observance of the Struggle for the 1965 Voting Rights Act Luncheon at the Wheat Street Baptist Church today, part of an all day dialog held at the church. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

‘I did the best I could’

Lowery was not afraid to be controversial.

In 1979, while President Jimmy Carter was inside Ebenezer Baptist Church receiving the King Center’s Martin Luther King Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize, Lowery was outside leading a protest march against the Georgia-born president. Lowery said Carter had not done enough as president to address unemployment among minorities.

“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.

Lowery retired as pastor of Cascade in 1992 at age 70. He retired from the SCLC in 1997.

In his final years with the group he negotiated a pact with the Publix grocery chain and Shoney’s restaurants worth more than $157 million to hire and promote more blacks and build more grocery stores and restaurants in minority neighborhoods. He also led the national call for the investigation of burned black churches and increased the number of SCLC chapters to more than 300.

“I did the best I could,” Lowery said in a 2008 interview about his tenure as SCLC president. “We tried to keep the flame burning, to keep the moral tone of the movement alive, to cry out for the moral imperatives of our faith. We continued to be the agitating force in the country. History will have to judge what that meant.”

After leaving the SCLC, he formed the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples Agenda, an umbrella organization of civil and human rights groups. Under its banner, he led charges to change the Georgia flag, to urge George W. Bush to re-authorize the Voting Rights Act and for the state to reject a controversial voter ID bill.

In 2001, in celebration of his 80th birthday, the Joseph E. Lowery Institute for Justice and Human Rights, a think tank to research and analyze issues related to civil and human rights, was established at Clark Atlanta University.

That year also saw Ashby Street renamed Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard and a lecture series created in his name in the Atlanta Public Schools system.

Truth to power

In what may go down as his most memorable performance, Lowery used the funeral of Coretta Scott King in January 2006 to criticize President Bush over the war in Iraq. 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. Bush, along with three former presidents — Carter, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush — sat behind him.

“We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction,” Rev. Lowery said to extended applause. “But Coretta knew, and we knew, there were weapons of misdirection right down here. Millions without health insurance, poverty abound. For war, billions more, but no more for the poor.”

His comments were criticized for bringing politics into the funeral. They were praised for articulating what many Americans were thinking.

“I celebrated her life, which was a life given over to the struggle for peace and justice,” Lowery said in 2008. “Many white people thought that was inappropriate in the church. But for us, the church is where we take our hurt, pain, hope and aspirations and our belief for a better day.”

Andrew Young, who was sitting on stage among all of the presidents and watching it unfold, said that Lowery, at that moment, was playing the role of a prophet.

“He was not disrespectful,” Young said. “He was saying it in a social-religious context. There was nothing personal or bitter about it. It was the non-violent tradition, speaking truth to power.”

In 2008, Lowery capped his civil rights career by working on the Obama campaign as a national co-chair for voter registration. After the election, President Obama picked Lowery to deliver the benediction at his inauguration.

Lowery did not disappoint, mixing religion, spirituals and even the blues into a speech that was equally celebrated and denounced.

In his emotional opening, he recited lines from James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as “The Negro National Anthem.” He ended by paraphrasing blues legend Big Bill Broonzy’s “Black, Brown and White.”

“Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back; when brown can stick around; when yellow will be mellow; when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right,” Lowery prayed. “Let all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen! Say Amen! And Amen!”

On later being admitted into Obama’s first class of Medal of Freedom recipients, Lowery said he hoped the president would build the better America for which he and King had laid the foundation.

“I get disgusted and mad with America sometimes, and I hear some fools talk about: Go back to Africa.’ I go to Africa every year, but the last thing I do before I get on the plane is check the ticket to make sure it is round trip,” Lowery said. “I’m coming back. This is my country. Africa may be the fatherland, but America is the mother. And I am going to hug mama and squeeze her.”

Joseph Lowery: A timeline

1924: Born in Huntsville, Ala., on October 6

1936: Enters high school at Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College’s laboratory school.

1943: Graduates from Paine College in with a B.A. degree in sociology.

1947: Marries Evelyn Gibson, daughter of Harris and Marva Gibson.

1952: Begins nine-year stint as pastor of the Warren Street Church in Mobile, Ala.

1957: Becomes a founding member of the Southern Leadership Conference.

1960: Is one of four Alabama ministers who signs the now-famous “Heed their Rising Voices” advertisement in the New York Times, calling for support of civil rights protestors and donations for MLK’s legal defense fund. A Montgomery city commissioner, L.B. Sullivan, sues Lowery, the other ministers and the New York Times for libel. The defendants ultimately prevail.

1961: Moves to Nashville, Tenn., to work as administrative assistant to Bishop Charles F. Golden. While there becomes active in the move to desegregate hotels and restaurants.

1964: Returns to Alabama as pastor of St. Paul’s Methodist Church in Birmingham.

1967: Becomes chairman of the board of SCLC.

1968:Is transferred from Birmingham to Atlanta, where he is minister of Central United Methodist Church.

1970: Spends a year as an instructor at Emory University Candler School of Theology & Nursery School.

1977: Is unanimously elected president of the SCLC at a meeting in Atlanta, a position he holds until 1997.

1982: Organizes one of the longest civil rights march in history as more than 4,000 supporters and civil rights leaders walk from Carrollton to Montgomery, Ala. in protest of the conviction of two black women for voting fraud, and also to demonstrate the need for an extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

1986: Becomes pastor of Atlanta’s Cascade Church.

1990: Wins the Martin Luther King Jr., Nonviolent Peace Prize.

1992: Retires as pastor of Cascades United Methodist Church.

1997: Receives the NAACP’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

2000: Argues for homosexual rights, criminal justice reform and abolition of capital punishment by lethal injection.

2001: Georgia’s Clark Atlanta University establishes the Joseph E. Lowery Institute for Justice and Human Rights.

2006: At funeral of Coretta Scott King in January, Lowery criticized President George W. Bush over the war in Iraq.

2008: Lowery capped his civil rights career by working on the Obama campaign as a national co-chair for voter registration.

2009: Lowery delivered the benediction at  Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration.

2009: Received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama.

2013: After nearly 70 years of marriage, Evelyn Lowery died on Sept. 26, 2013.

2020: Lowery died with his family with him. He was 98 years old.

Sources: Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Who’s Who Among African Americans, Gale, 2005. Religious Leaders of America, 1999, Notable Black American Men, 1998, Current Biography 1982, ajc articles

Compiled by Nisa Asokan.