Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, a witty preacher who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King Jr. and was known as the “dean of the civil rights movement,” died Friday. He was 98.
Lowery spent most of his life in pulpits across the country, preaching a gospel of social justice that inspired generations to challenge racist Jim Crow laws and integrate the segregated South.
“Rev. Joseph Lowery was a giant who let so many of us stand on his shoulders,” former President Barack Obama tweeted. “With boundless generosity, patience, and moral courage, he encouraged a new generation of activists and leaders. Michelle and I remember him fondly today, and our love and prayers are with his family.”
On Jan. 20, 2009, Lowery offered a stirring benediction during Obama’s inauguration as the 44th president of the United States, with his every word a literary testimony to the toil and struggle that an era of activist preachers employed to usher in a new political day.
“God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou who has brought us thus far along the way, thou who has by thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path, we pray,” said Lowery, who began his benediction with the lyrics of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often recognized as the Black national anthem.
“We truly give thanks for the glorious experience we’ve shared this day,” Lowery said on that historic day. “We pray now, O Lord, for your blessing upon thy servant, Barack Obama, the 44th president of these United States, his family and his administration.”
As a founding member of the SCLC, Lowery was part of a spiritual band of brothers that included Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, Wyatt Tee Walker, Hosea Williams and James Bevel, who preceded him in death, and others such as the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr., C.T. Vivian and Andrew Young.
As a student at Florida State, this writer first met Lowery at Bethel Baptist Church in Tallahassee during the funeral of Rev. CK Steele, a founding member of the SCLC. From that moment forward, he often gave me his prepared remarks whenever he saw me.
As a reporter for the Sheridan Broadcasting Network and the Washington Afro American, I often pushed to the pulpit after a Lowery speech for a sound bite and his printed messages, and he never let me down.
Lowery was born Oct. 6, 1921, in Huntsville, Alabama, to Leroy and Dora Lowery. He attended middle school in Chicago while staying with relatives, but he returned to Huntsville to graduate from William Hooper Council High School. He attended the Knoxville College and Alabama A&M College and eventually graduated from Paine College. He was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and later earned a doctorate in divinity degree from Chicago Ecumenical Institute.
In 1950, Lowery married Evelyn Gibson, a civil rights activist and leader in her own right. She was the sister of the late activist Harry Gibson and elder member of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church in the Chicago area. The couple worked closely until her death in 2013.
They had three daughters, Yvonne Kennedy, Karen Lowery and Cheryl Lowery-Osborne. Lowery also had two sons, Joseph Jr. and LeRoy III, from a previous marriage.
Ordained as a United Methodist minister, Lowery became pastor of the Warren Street Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama, from 1952 to 1961. After Rosa Parks’ arrest in 1955, he helped lead the Montgomery bus boycott. He also led the Alabama Civic Affairs Association, an organization devoted to the desegregation of buses and public places.
Two years later, he and King founded the SCLC, of which Lowery later served as president for two decades. The group was instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In 1997, at what was then the Jericho City of Praise in Landover, Maryland, Lowery passed the mantle of leadership to Martin Luther King III during a six-hour event that brought out many political leaders and legends.
“We are here to crown a new king,” Lowery said to King at the time. “I am proud to engage in this symbolic passing of the torch. I don’t have a jealous bone in my body. I want you to do well. God has been good to me. Take hold!”