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A tribute to Rev. Joseph Lowery - Titan of the Civil Rights Era

Fri 2nd Apr 2021

Reverend Joseph Lowery exhibited courage and strength in his fight for Civil Rights in the USA. Photo: Jaime Lee, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Reverend Joseph Lowery exhibited courage and strength in his fight for Civil Rights in the USA. Photo: Jaime Lee, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Reverend Joseph Lowery, or the 'Dean' as he was affectionately known, passed away March 27, 2020. He was 98 years old.

During a lifetime of service that put him on the front line of civil rights battles, civil disobedience, and political pressure campaigns, Lowery worked alongside historic activists like Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson, and played an influential role in organising the protests that helped combat racial segregation in America.

Early Life

Joseph Lowery was born in Huntsville, Alabama, in 1921. His mother was a teacher and his father a shopkeeper.

He began his education in Alabama, but after an altercation with a white police officer for not getting off the sidewalk to let a white man to pass, he was sent away to live with relatives in Chicago. He eventually returned to Alabama where he completed High School.

Lowery went on to attend Knoxville College and Alabama A&M College and graduated from Paine College. An educated man, he also trained at Payne Theological Seminary and completed a Doctor of Divinity degree at the Chicago Ecumenical Institute.

In 1950, Lowery married Evelyn Gibson, a civil rights activist and leader in her own right; and together they raised three daughters.

Lowery also had two sons from an earlier marriage.

American civil rights career

Lowery says the path to becoming a civil rights activist likely began at age twelve or thirteen when he had another racial confrontation with a white police officer for not moving aside when a white man approached a door.

His career in the Civil Rights Movement really took off in the early 1950s where he marched in countless demonstrations, was repeatedly arrested and was once shot at by the Ku Klux Klan. He organised protests aimed at desegregating buses and public spaces in Alabama and helped coordinate the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, a moment in civil rights history that ended segregation of the city's public transportation for good.

In 1957, he and a number of other black ministers including Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, and others, co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a group originally headed by King and later led by Lowery as its President from 1977 to 1997.

Reverend Lowery and his associates enacted real change in the United States that carries on to this day.
Reverend Lowery and his associates enacted real change in the United States that carries on to this day.

An activist until his passing

The reverend's work continued beyond the 1960s, as he devoted himself to a wide range of causes. Lowery retired from the pulpit in 1997 after serving his community for more than forty-five years.  He still however remained active, and worked to encourage African Americans to vote, and even recorded a rap with artist NATE the Great to help spread this message.

Lowery was reputedly known as a powerful speaker in the tradition of the black church, gracing his services with wit and rhyme. During the 2006 funeral for Coretta Scott King, civil rights activist and widow of Martin Luther King Jr., Lowery received a standing ovation when he accused the Bush administration of spending on the war in Iraq while ignoring injustice of the poor.

Lowery was one of the first civil rights veterans to advocate for LGBTQ rights: "I don't think you can say we believe in equal rights for some people but not for others. I think that's what we call an oxymoron. I think if you believe in equal rights, you have to grant them to all the people."

Awards

Lowery received numerous awards, including an NAACP Lifetime Achievement Award calling him the "Dean of the Civil Rights Movement" in 1997.

He received the Martin Luther King Jr. Center Peace Award in 2004 and was honored at the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site.

He was named one of the fifteen greatest black preachers by Ebony Magazine and several colleges and universities awarded him honorary doctorates.

In 2009, President Barack Obama awarded Lowery the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civil honor in the United States.

"Joseph Lowery changed the face of America. 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," said Barack Obama.

Lowery went on to recieve the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama. Photo: John Mathew Smith ; www.celebrity-photos.com from Laurel Maryland, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0
Lowery went on to recieve the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama. Photo: John Mathew Smith ; www.celebrity-photos.com from Laurel Maryland, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0

Reverend Joseph Lowery will forever be remembered for his courage, sacrifice, and commitment to the fight for justice.

"If you don't know where you come from, it's difficult to determine where you are - It's even more difficult to plan where you are going." - Joseph Lowery

Rest in Peace, Reverend Dr. Joseph Lowery

By Kirsten Jakubenko

Sources:

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Lowery
  • https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2020/3/28/1932041/-Civil-Rights-icon-Rev-Dr-Joseph-Lowery-has-gone-home
  • https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/3/28/ 2119... /rev-joseph-lowery-civil-rights-death
  • https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Joseph_Lowery 
  • https://twitter.com/barackobama/status/1243990301175353345?lang=en