Civil Rights Icon Rev. Joseph Lowery dies at age 98

P2P Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery

ATLANTA — A civil rights icon and a founding father of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference has died.

Rev. Joseph Lowery died Friday at age 98 surrounded by his family at home.

Lowery is known across the world as the founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil rights organization he started with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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Channel 2′s Tyisha Fernandes spoke to former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young, who was the director of the SCLC for nearly 30 years before becoming Atlanta’s mayor.

Young called Lowery a visionary leader and also one of the funniest people he knew.

“Whenever we got together, we spent a hundred more times laughing than we did crying,” Young said. “We were very seldom sad, even though there were many sad and tragic occasions. But by-in-large, we were filled with the spirit of brotherhood and love and wanting to make the world a better place.”

Fernandes is working to learn the details of any memorial service for Lowery, although social distancing will obviously limit any service at least for the moment.

“The best way to honor Dr. Lowery is to continue to fight and work towards achieving the things that he cared about,” Young said. “Racial equality was a big part of it, but also where we are with crime justice reform, and all of the injustices that we see related to the disparities in our crime justice system.”

Joseph Echols Lowery was born Oct. 6, 1921, in Huntsville, Alabama.

It was in Alabama where Lowery began his lifelong work in the civil rights movement.

As a child, people often told him that he was going to be a preacher, but he dreamed of studying law.

Although his great-grandfather, the Rev. Green Echols, was the first black pastor of Lakeside Methodist Church in Huntsville, and his mother would drag him to church and make him sing and make speeches before the congregation, he resisted any urge to preach.

After high school, he attended both Knoxville College and Alabama A&M University, before getting his undergraduate degree from Paine College in Augusta. In the mid-1940s, he moved to Birmingham, where he edited the weekly “Birmingham Informer,” to earn money for law school.

In 1947, his life took a different turn. Rev. Lowery and a Clark College student named Evelyn Gibson, the daughter of the Rev. H.B. Gibson Sr., were set up on a blind date by her younger sister.

“We were both young, but he was old for his age even then,” Mrs. Lowery said in 1985. “He was already talking on the same level as my father in terms of maturity and depth.”

They dated for a year and married on April 5, 1948. They had three daughters, Yvonne, Karen and Cheryl, and 12 grandchildren.

Instead of law school, Lowery attended Payne Theological Seminary, Wayne State University, Garrett Theological Seminary and the Chicago Ecumenical Institute to study religion.

In 1949, for $21 a week, Lowery was appointed to his first church, East Thomas United Methodist, “out on the edge of the ghetto in Birmingham.”

“I couldn’t preach then,” he said. “But very politely they would say, ‘I enjoyed your sermon.’ I remember one lady said, ‘Keep on trying, son.’”

A year later, he moved to Alexander City, Alabama, where he worked for three years for $30 to $40 a week, then transferred in 1953 to Mobile to take over the Warren Street Methodist Church.

“That’s where I had my baptism of fire in the movement,” he said of his nine-year stay in Mobile.

An early supporter of the Montgomery bus boycott that started in 1955, Rev. Lowery organized a local—and more quickly successful—boycott of the buses in Mobile.

That got Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s attention.

Just a few years later, in 1957, he and King formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. With the SCLC, Lowery intensified his civil rights work, while he grew as a minister.

In 1977, Lowery became the organization’s president.

"We believe in nonviolence. We believe in analysis and communication and negotiation," Lowery said.

"And as a last resort, we believe in nonviolent direct action."

Lowery carried on King's dream, participating in peaceful protests around the country for justice and equality.

"We believe at rock bottom, that the solutions to our problems are moral," Lowery said.

From the pulpit, while Lowery preached about God and salvation, his sermons also challenged leaders to end poverty and war.

For 14 years, Lowery served as pastor of Atlanta's Cascade United Methodist Church. He retired in 1990, and in 1998, he stepped down as president of the SCLC.

"It's been a great journey. This whole experience... I wouldn't take nothing from my journey now. But I think it's time now ... and I'm not leading a movement, to make that clear. I could intend to raise hell," Lowery said.

After leaving the SCLC, he formed the Georgia Coalition for the People's Agenda, an umbrella organization of civil and human rights groups in the state.

There he led charges to change the Georgia flag, to urge President George W. Bush to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act and for the state to reject a controversial voter ID bill.

In 2006, he was once again in the spotlight for the political comments he made at the funeral of his dead friend, Coretta Scott King.

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

He never shied away from controversy and remained a tough, but likable, lightning rod, unafraid to speak his mind. He rarely apologized for anything he said, lashing out at both political parties for failing to do enough for blacks, denouncing U.S. foreign policy, even calling the 1983 invasion of Grenada “premature and opportunistic” and “probably illegal and immoral.” He criticized his “colored brothers and sisters who think that all they have to do is wear a three-piece suit, a gold chain and Miss Clairol, and they’ve got it made,” and blasted black leaders - including Andrew Young — in 2008 who backed Hillary Clinton for president over Barack Obama.

In 2008, Lowery played a prominent role in the election of President Barack Obama, as the country's first black president.

Lowery endorsed Obama early in the campaign, and delivered a soul-stirring benediction at the historic inauguration.

"Help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance. And as we leave this mountain top, help us to hold on to the spirit of fellowship," Lowery said.

Even in his 90s, he was still Atlanta’s most active civil rights voice, overshadowing other organizational leaders with his intellect and wit.

He often said he was grateful to have lived so long, considering that King died at 39.

But Lowery also was a survivor.

As a young man, he survived bombings and several attempts on his life, including a vicious 1977 Klan attack. As an older man, he beat prostate cancer.

When asked how he was doing, he would always say, “I am just an old man, doing young things. I am tired, but happy.”

Among all the prestigious awards and degrees bestowed upon Lowery for his civil rights work, one of his proudest moments came when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in August 2009 from President Obama.

It is the highest honor given to a U.S. citizen and part of a remarkable journey for a man who often referred to himself as just a small town country preacher.

"I'm grateful I've lived to see so many things that come to pass, that I never dreamed I would live to see," Lowery said.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued the following statement on the passing on Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery.

“Derek and I are deeply saddened by the passing of Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery. While he was a world-renowned leader of the Civil Rights Movement, he was a monumental part of our village, known as Atlanta. His love, care and concern for the people of our communities is only surpassed by the love he had for his beautiful wife Evelyn, their children, grandchildren and his entire family. Dr. Lowery has been an ever-present part of the fabric of Atlanta, from his leadership of the SCLC, to his pastoring Cascade United Church, to simply his participation in so many events, big and small, throughout our community. While we will truly miss his presence here on earth, as he often reminded us, we will see him in the morning.”

The family issued a statement Saturday night:

“Our entire family is humbled and blessed by the overwhelming outpouring of love and support that has come from around the globe. We thank you for loving our father, Dr. Joseph E. Lowery, and for your continuous prayers during this time. In lieu of flowers, cards or food, donations may be made to The Joseph & Evelyn Lowery Institute for Justice & Human Rights. Dr. Lowery’s life was driven by a sense of obligation to our global community and desire to champion love over hate; inclusion over exclusion. The Lowery Institute was founded in 2002 to further Dr. Lowery’s legacy of promoting non-violent advocacy among future generations. Donations can be sent to The Joseph & Evelyn Lowery Institute, P.O. Box 92801, Atlanta, GA 30314, or on-line at loweryinstitute.org. Aligning with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines on COVID-19 prevention and social distancing, plans are underway for a private family service. A public memorial will be held in late summer or early fall. Thank you, The Lowery Family”


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution contributed to this story.​

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