Civil Rights Leader Rev. Joseph Lowery, Alabama Native, Dies at 98

Rev. Joseph Lowery

Civil rights icon the Rev. Joseph Lowery delivers the keynote address at Clark Atlanta University’s fall convocation Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012, in Atlanta. Lowery urged young people to vote at the event where a voter registration march was planned but canceled because of the weather. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Nationally-known civil rights leader Rev. Joseph E. Lowery has died at the age of 98 at his home in Atlanta. He died Friday surrounded by his family, according to a statement.

Lowery was born in Huntsville in 1921 and had fought to end segregation with his friend and civil rights icon, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“We ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back; when brown can stick around; when yellow will be mellow; when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right,” Lowery prayed at President Obama’s inaugural benediction in 2009.

He died from natural causes unrelated to the coronavirus outbreak, his family’s statement said.

“Tonight, the great Reverend Joseph E. Lowery transitioned from earth to eternity,” The King Center in Atlanta remembered Lowery in a Friday night tweet. “He was a champion for civil rights, a challenger of injustice, a dear friend to the King family.”

Lowery led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for two decades — restoring the organization’s financial stability and pressuring businesses not to trade with South Africa’s apartheid-era regime — before retiring in 1997.

In 2009, Obama awarded Lowery the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Lowery’s involvement in civil rights grew naturally out of his Christian faith. He often preached that racial discrimination in housing, employment and health care was at odds with such fundamental Christian values as human worth and the brotherhood of man.

“I’ve never felt your ministry should be totally devoted to making a heavenly home. I thought it should also be devoted to making your home here heavenly,” he once said.

Lowery was pastor of the Warren Street Methodist Church in Mobile in the 1950s when he met King, who then lived in Montgomery. Lowery’s meetings with King, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy and other civil rights activists led to the SCLC’s formation in 1957. The group became a leading force in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s.

Lowery became SCLC president in 1977 following the resignation of Abernathy, who had taken the job after King was assassinated in 1968. He took over an SCLC that was deeply in debt and losing members rapidly. Lowery helped the organization survive and guided it on a new course that embraced more mainstream social and economic policies.

Coretta Scott King once said Lowery “has led more marches and been in the trenches more than anyone since Martin.”

He was arrested in 1983 in North Carolina for protesting the dumping of toxic wastes in a predominantly black county and in 1984 in Washington while demonstrating against apartheid.

He recalled a 1979 confrontation in Decatur, Alabama, when he and others were protesting the case of a mentally disabled black man charged with rape. He recalled that bullets whizzed inches above their heads and a group of Klan members confronted them.

“I could hear them go ‘whoosh,’” Lowery said. “I’ll never forget that. I almost died 24 miles from where I was born.”

Lowery grew up in a Methodist church where his great-grandfather, the Rev. Howard Echols, was the first black pastor. Lowery’s father, a grocery store owner, often protested racism in the community.

After college, Lowery edited a newspaper and taught school in Birmingham, but the idea of becoming a minister “just kept gnawing and gnawing at me,” he said. After marrying Evelyn Gibson, a Methodist preacher’s daughter, he began his first pastorate in Birmingham in 1948.

In a 1998 interview, Lowery said he was optimistic that true racial equality would one day be achieved.

“I believe in the final triumph of righteousness,” he said. “The Bible says weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”

A member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, Lowery is survived by his three daughters, Yvonne Kennedy, Karen Lowery and Cheryl Lowery.

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