It took the most life altering event of the 21st century to finally mute the importance of one of the most significant figures of the second half of the 20th century. Joseph Echols Lowery, co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the direct action civil rights organization that served as the firing pin that used non-violent protest to push Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and coordinated movements across the nation that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, has finally expired. He was 98. Due to social distancing requirements from COVID-19, a public celebration of his life and legacy will be postponed until fall.
Lowery, born in Huntsville, Alabama, was one of the inner circle of preachers credited with launching the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, along with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and Rev. C.K. Steele of Tallahassee.
Unlike the bombastic Rev. Hosea Williams, who served as King’s fiery field general, agitating and igniting movements, or Andy Young, known as the great negotiator and someone who knew how to deal with white intransigents resisting change, or Shuttlesworth, whose bravery is legendary after his home was bombed several times and he was beaten repeatedly — along with his pregnant wife, Ruby — while trying to enroll their children in school in 1957, Lowery’s legacy is more nuanced.
Primarily, he was not known as someone who had repeatedly been battered or terrorized on the front lines in the fifties and sixties, though he did have scrapes with racist leaders. In fact, in 1979, in Decatur, Alabama, Lowery and the SCLC-led protesters, while challenging the arrest of a docile, retarded black man, Tommie Lee Lines, for allegedly raping two white women, were confronted by armed Klansmen, who shot at the non-violent protesters, including Mrs. Evelyn Lowery. She narrowly escaped a bullet through her windshield while seeking cover in the floorboard of her car.
Lowery was arrested numerous times, including while protesting our government’s support of apartheid South African regime in 1984. He also led the successful integration of the bus lines in Mobile, AL before the seismic, 381-day boycott triggered by Rosa Parks in Montgomery in 1955. In 1965, King delegated him to present the movement rights’ marchers’ demands to intransigent Alabama governor and avowed segregationist George Wallace.
Rooted and grounded in voting rights and education, Lowery and the SCLC established and kept alive dozens of chapters throughout the country and the world. Along the way, Ebony selected him as one of America’s top 15 preachers.
Lowery campaigned vigorously for Obama, and in 2009, brought the fiery, controversial benediction at the conclusion of the inauguration of the nation’s first black president. Obama awarded Lowery with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, later that year.
After his time at the SCLC, he founded the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, a 501C-3 that boasts chapters and affiliates through nine states, still focusing on voter rights and registration. Farewell to the “Dean” of the civil rights movement.
On Mar 28, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) The Rev. Joseph Lowery, passed away due to natural causes
Deric Gilliard is former communications for the SCLC and the author of “Living in the Shadows of A Legend: Unsung Heroes and ‘Sheroes’ who Marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.