Commentary: Joseph Lowery’s example of compassion

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The Rev. Joseph Lowery, one of the last surviving leaders of the U.S. civil rights movement, died in late March at the age of 98.

Of all the amazing accolades listed in his obituary, I was most struck in reading that he once told an interviewer his theory on why he lived longer than most of the other great civil rights leaders. He said he felt God was keeping him alive so he could address the injustices of the criminal justice system, particularly toward poor black men.

I am too young to have known and worked with Lowery, but I did once hear him deliver one of his fiery oratories on race and justice at Howard University. As a civil and human rights lawyer who heads the U.S. Program at Human Rights Watch, I’ve devoted my career to fighting the same injustices Lowery did throughout his life.

As the nation lives through the COVID-19 pandemic, we are all experiencing what it is like to feel vulnerable. But perhaps the most vulnerable of all are those in our jails and prisons. The virus is affecting the lives of those in detention as well as those who care for them.

Overpopulated U.S. jails and prisons are incubators for the spread of disease — a problem that existed long before the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global pandemic.

Our research at Human Rights Watch underscores that a disproportionate number of those in detention are black — the very group of people Lowery felt called to defend and protect.

If swift action is not taken to lessen the prison and jail population, the virus will spread more rapidly, and the prison system will face deadly consequences. While this alarm bell has not been heard by all, some states have been releasing varying numbers of detained individuals.

On March 27, the same day that Lowery died at his home in Atlanta, hundreds of former federal prosecutors, judges, and justice department lawyers sent a letter to President Donald Trump asking the government to release more people from federal custody to help curb the spread of the virus.

Front-line civil and human rights leaders have always been our conscience, as Lowery’s life reminds us.

In 1979, Lowery, in defiance of a threat from the Ku Klux Klan, marched for leniency for a black man with a mental health condition who was accused of raping two white women in Decatur, Ala. He recalled later that bullets whizzed inches above his head during the march. That’s the kind of courage that is needed to get us through the present moment.

While the pandemic has overshadowed news of Lowery’s death, we would do well to heed his example. Let’s honor his life’s work by taking action to save those in our jails and prisons.



Nicole Austin-Hillery is the U.S. executive director at Human Rights Watch. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is operated by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.


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