Joseph Lowery, civil-rights lion from King to Obama, dies at 98

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Joseph Lowery, the civil-rights activist who helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King Jr. and, 52 years later, blessed the inauguration of the first black U.S. president, Barack Obama, has died. He was 98.

He died Friday at home in Atlanta of natural causes, the Associated Press reported, citing a statement from his family.

Lowery’s view of the injustices of segregated America came from his upbringing in racially divided Huntsville, Ala., and his role as a Methodist minister in Mobile and Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1950s and 1960s. He worked with fellow ministers King and Ralph Abernathy to create the SCLC in 1957 and was president from 1977 to 1998.

Originally deemed too moderate by rivals for the top post, Lowery “led the organization beyond traditional civil rights issues with unflinching outspokenness,” according to “Civil Rights: An A-to-Z Reference of the Movement That Changed America” (2004), by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates. That included fighting the white-minority-rule apartheid system in South Africa, urging creation of a Palestinian state and criticizing U.S. policy in Central America.

“He was a champion for civil rights, a challenger of injustice, a dear friend to the King family,” according to The King Center, a memorial to King and founded by his late wife, in a Twitter post confirming Lowery’s death. “Thank you, sir.”

Under Lowery, the SCLC reached accords with Shoney’s Inc. under which the restaurant chain, criticized for its treatment of black employees, paid or pledged more than $200 million to provide business opportunities to minorities. Another agreement, with Publix Super Markets Inc., called for promoting black employees into management and signing contracts with minority-owned vendors.

He made waves at the funeral of Coretta Scott King in 2006 when, with President George W. Bush looking on, he turned the discussion to the war in Iraq.

“We know now that there were no weapons of mass destruction over there,” he said. “But Coretta knew, and we know, that there are weapons of misdirection right down here. Millions without health insurance. Poverty abounds. For war, billions more, but no more for the poor.”

Defending his remarks on Fox News’s “Hannity & Colmes,” he said, “I was asked by the family to give a civil rights and human rights tribute. What did you expect me to talk about, wine and roses?”

In his benediction to close Obama’s first inauguration, on Jan. 20, 2009, Lowery said Americans were seeking forgiveness for sowing “the seeds of greed” and reaping “the whirlwind of social and economic disruption.”

He closed with a prayer for “that day when black will not be asked to get 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.”

Seven months later, Obama presented Lowery with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, calling him “a giant of the Moses generation of Civil Rights leaders.”

Joseph Echols Lowery was born Oct. 6, 1921, in Huntsville, the first of two children of LeRoy Lowery, who owned a store in the segregated city’s black section, and the former Dora Fackler, a teacher.

He studied at several schools, including Knoxville College in Tennessee and Alabama A&M University in Normal, Alabama, according to various biographies.

He entered the ministry, following in the footsteps of his great-grandfather, Echols Lowery, a former Methodist minister in Huntsville.

From 1952 to 1961, he led the Warren Street United Methodist Church in Mobile. That city “was as racist as Montgomery, but its racism was not as toxic as Montgomery’s and Birmingham’s,” Lowery recalled in his 2011 book, “Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land.”

As head of the Alabama Civic Affairs Association, he advocated for integration of buses and public places following the arrest in 1955 of Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery bus. Lowery then joined with other pastor-advocates, including King, Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth, to form a regional civil-rights group, eventually named the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King was the founding president, Lowery the vice president.

Lowery helped lead the March 1965 protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, that drew a violent response by police on what became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

When the marchers reached Montgomery, Lowery led the delegation that met with Governor George Wallace to demand removal of Alabama’s poll tax, appointment of more black state employees and an end to police brutality.

“I said to him, governor, I speak to you today as a Methodist preacher to a Methodist layman — not as a civil rights leader to a governor,” he recalled in an oral-history interview with the National Visionary Leadership Project, a Washington-based nonprofit organization. “And I want to tell you the lord’s going to hold you responsible for the kind of leadership you’re giving, the hatred, the hostility, the violence that you inspire and instigate.”

Five months later, citing “the outrage of Selma,” President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited states from taking steps to discourage the casting of ballots.

Lowery was pastor of St. Paul’s Church in Birmingham from 1964 to 1968. He was on a train back home from Nashville when King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, and he went on Birmingham radio and television stations to urge calm.

He became chairman of the SCLC in 1967, then succeeded Abernathy as president in 1977. He was a co-founder in 1977 of the Black Leadership Forum, a consortium of national black advocacy organizations.

In 1982, he led a 13-day, 140-mile (225 kilometer) march from Pickens County, Alabama, to the capitol in Montgomery to call for the release of two black women convicted of vote fraud, and to call for extension of the Voting Rights Act.

From 1986 to 1992 he was pastor of Cascade United Methodist Church in Atlanta.

He had three daughters — Yvonne, Karen and Cheryl — with his wife, the former Evelyn Gibson, who died in September 2013. He had two sons, LeRoy and Joseph, from a previous marriage, according to Cheryl Lowery.


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