Late last Friday, Reverend Dr. Joseph E. Lowery peacefully “transitioned from earth to eternity,” The King Center in Atlanta tweeted. Dr. Lowery is accredited as the “Dean of the Civil Rights Movement.” He was a husband, a father, a pastor, and a renowned freedom fighter. He is remembered for his charm, witty wordplay, and the ability to connect with people despite differences.
Joseph Echols Lowery was born in Huntsville, Alabama, on October 6, 1921. Early childhood experiences with the Ku Klux Klan and prejudiced police officers set the precedent for eight decades of leadership and advocacy for nonviolent social change.
Upon graduating high school in 1939, Lowery pursued a bachelor’s degree from Alabama A&M University and Knoxville College. Shortly after finishing his undergraduate studies, he went on to Payne College & Theological Seminary to become an ordained Methodist minister.
In 1950, Lowery went on to pastor at Warren Street United Methodist Church in Mobile Alabama. His lifelong work with civil rights began when he headed the Alabama Civic Affairs Association. The organization was devoted to desegregating buses and public accommodations, according to the Lowery Institute.
In 1957, Rev. Dr. Lowery, alongside Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, and Bayard Rustin, founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The SCLC organization “advocated confrontation of segregation through civil dissent,” according to the National SCLC website. Lowery worked in various positions on the board–ultimately spending two decades as the chief executive officer.
In 1960, Lowery was one of four Alabama pastors, along with the New York Times, named in a libel (defamation) suit brought on by the Montgomery police commissioner. The lawsuit was initiated after a Northern supporter of the SCLC posted an advertisement in the NY Times, citing various misbehavior of the local police during the civil rights movement.
The case was won in the Alabama Courts and eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The highest court in the land reversed the initial decision, citing that the first amendment did apply in a libel suit. Sullivan v. NY Times, Abernathy, Lowery, Shuttlesworth, & Seay verdict became a landmark ruling that established free speech rights of the press, and any person that advocates for justice and societal change.
Shortly after, Dr. King chose Lowery to be his lieutenant responsible for delivering the demands of the Selma-to-Montgomery march. On March 7, 1965, participants of the demonstration were brutally beaten for the world to see. The day is now remembered as “Bloody Sunday.” This event ultimately led to the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Rev. Dr. Lowery committed his life to social justice reform on a national and global scale. He led the desegregation of Nashville, Tennessee public schools, rallied for election reform and economic justice, and empowered historically disenfranchised communities.
He went on to lead a peace delegation to Lebanon and parts of Central America to seek non-violent resolutions to the region’s conflict. After protesting the South Africa apartheid, Lowery spearheaded the 1990 visit to Atlanta of Nelson Mandela. During this visit, he awarded Mandela the “Martin Luther King Human Rights” award.
On January 20, 2009, Dr. Lowery delivered the Benediction for President Obama’s inauguration as the 44th President of the United States. A highlight of his life came later that year when President Obama bestowed upon him the nation’s highest civilian honor: The Presidential Medal of Freedom. The medal was given in recognition of his lifelong commitment to nonviolent justice, human rights, economic equality, voting rights, peace, and human dignity, according to the Lowery Institute.
The incomparable Rev. Dr. Joseph E. Lowery received countless awards and honors for his life work. His legacy lives on through the Lowery family, his church community, and through all the members of the Lowery Institute in Atlanta, Georgia.