Joseph Lowery, 1921–2020
The civil rights icon who never gave up the fight for justice
For more than seven decades, the Rev. Joseph Lowery was a stalwart of the civil rights movement. In the 1950s, the Methodist minister helped coordinate the boycott of segregated public buses in Montgomery, Ala., and he co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1965, Lowery was chosen by King to deliver the demands of the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights marchers to Alabama Gov. George Wallace—who had ordered the marchers beaten by state troopers. Lowery kept up the fight after the assassination of Dr. King in 1968. As president of the SCLC from 1977 to 1997, he campaigned for equality in housing, employment, and health care. Despite his years of activism, he never thought that he’d see an African-American elected president. But in 2009, Lowery delivered the benediction at President Barack Obama’s inauguration. “Help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate,” he preached to the nation, “tolerance, not intolerance.”
Lowery was born in Huntsville, Ala., to a shopkeeper father and a schoolteacher mother, said Vox.com. He had a racial awakening at age 13 when he nearly bumped into a white policeman entering the family store. The officer hit Lowery in the stomach with his nightstick and said, “Get back, n-----. Don’t you see a white man coming in the door?” Feeling a call to preach, after graduating college Lowery enrolled at a seminary in Ohio and first served as a pastor in Mobile, Ala.
He remained an activist into his 90s, “fighting for gay rights and election reform and against capital punishment,” said CNN.com. We have to stay “ever vigilant and energetic,” Lowery explained, “lest the clock be turned back.”