In the midst of the sadness and fear surrounding the pandemic our nation is struggling through, we have lost a civil rights giant.
When Joe Lowery was about 11 years old in 1930s Alabama, a policeman hit him in the stomach with a bully stick for being in a white man’s way. He responded by trying to run home to get his father’s gun. His father stopped him from retaliating that day, but Joe made it his mission to fight back against injustice when he grew up. He remained a courageous warrior for justice all of his life. The “Dean of the Civil Rights Movement,” Joe Lowery was a constant companion to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who led the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the march from Selma to Montgomery and a cofounder and later long-term president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He fought against apartheid in South Africa and for LGBTQ rights and marriage equality. He gave the moving benediction at the end of President Barack Obama’s first inauguration.
When he passed away on March 27 at age 98, Obama said: “Rev. Joseph Lowery was a giant who let so many of us stand on his shoulders. … He carried the baton longer and surer than almost anybody. It falls to the rest of us now to pick it up and never stop moving forward until we finish what he started — that journey to justice.”
Just a few weeks ago I wrote about that historic inauguration and the symbolism of Joe Lowery’s benediction. He began by quoting the wonderful Negro national anthem written by James Weldon Johnson, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” The words he chose from the third verse contain a promise that resonates right now as they remind us of all we’ve overcome before:
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way,
Thou who has by thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path we pray…
Other lines in his benediction also resonate deeply now. Our nation was undergoing another financial crisis at the time and Rev. Lowery prayed for true leadership to help those who needed it most: “Because we know You’ve got the whole world in Your hand, we pray for not only our nation, but for the community of nations. Our faith does not shrink, though pressed by the flood of mortal ills. For we know that, Lord, You are able, and You’re willing to work through faithful leadership to restore stability, mend our brokenness, heal our wounds…” He prayed that we would all be willing “to turn to each other and not on each other.” And he prayed: “Help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance. And as we leave this mountaintop, help us to hold on to the spirit of fellowship and the oneness of our family. Let us take that power back to our homes, our workplaces, our churches, our temples, our mosques, or wherever we seek Your will. … We go now to walk together, children, pledging that we won’t get weary in the difficult days ahead. We know You will not leave us alone. With Your hands of power and Your heart of love, help us then now, Lord, to work for that day when nations shall not lift up sword against nations; when tanks will be beaten into tractors; when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid; when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.”
Rev. Joe Lowery’s words can continue to help sustain us. As we desperately wait and continuously work for a new day, let this be another moment when people will turn to each other instead of on each other; when we will make choices on the side of love, not hate; when we will not get weary in the difficult days ahead; and when we will remember that we are never alone. I am so grateful for this great leader’s courageous life and legacy.
Edelman is founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund.