EJI Honors Memory of Reverend Joseph Lowery

03.30.20

Civil rights leader Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, who worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to lead the civil rights movement in America, died on Friday at age 98.

Rev. Lowery traced his commitment to equality back to age 11, when a police officer in Huntsville, Alabama, jabbed him in the stomach with a nightstick. “Don’t you see a white man coming in the door?,” the officer said, using a racial epithet. That encounter “planted a seed in me,” Mr. Lowery told Emerge magazine in 1998. “It’s a wonder it didn’t make me hate.”

He was sent to live with relatives in Chicago but returned to Huntsville to finish high school. After college, he reported on racial violence for a Birmingham newspaper before enrolling in the Payne Theological Seminary in Wilberforce, Ohio. He was ordained in the United Methodist Church and assigned to Warren Street United Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama, where he joined the local NAACP.

Alabama outlawed the NAACP in 1956, so Rev. Lowery created and led the Alabama Civil Affairs Association. The group staged a successful boycott of racially segregated buses in Mobile before Rosa Parks’s arrest on December 1, 1955, sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Rev. Lowery then joined Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to help organize the boycott in Alabama’s capital that led to a Supreme Court decision striking down segregation on city buses nationwide.

In 1965, Dr. King chose Rev. Lowery to chair the delegation that delivered the demands of the Selma-to-Montgomery March to Alabama Governor George Wallace.

Rev. Lowery co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Dr. King. He led the organization from 1977 to 1997, promoting economic empowerment for African Americans, leading a 2,700-mile march to Washington to push for renewal of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 1982, and becoming known as the dean of the civil rights movement. He also supported marriage equality and campaigned to end the death penalty.

Frequently targeted for violence by opponents to civil rights, Rev. Lowery’s motel room in Birmingham was bombed in 1963 and he was shot at while protesting on behalf of a mentally disabled black man accused of raping two white women in Decatur, Alabama, in 1979.

Rev. Lowery gave the benediction at President Barack Obama’s inauguration. In 2009, President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.