Joseph Lowery
Lowery in 2000
3rd President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
In office
Preceded byRalph Abernathy
Succeeded byMartin Luther King III
Personal details
Joseph Echols Lowery

(1921-10-06)October 6, 1921
Huntsville, Alabama, U.S.
DiedMarch 27, 2020(2020-03-27) (aged 98)
Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.
Agnes Moore
(m. 1950; died 2013)
EducationPaine College
Payne Theological Seminary
Known forCivil rights movement
AwardsPresidential Medal of Freedom (2009)
AffiliationsGeorgia's Coalition for the People's Agenda;
Alabama Civic Affairs Association;
Black Leadership Forum;
Lowery Institute

Joseph Echols Lowery (October 6, 1921 – March 27, 2020) was an American minister in the United Methodist Church and leader in the civil rights movement. He founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King Jr. and others, serving as its vice president, later chairman of the board, and its third president from 1977 to 1997. Lowery participated in most of the major activities of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, and continued his civil rights work into the 21st century. He was called the "Dean of the Civil Rights Movement."[1]

In 2009, Lowery received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from U.S. President Barack Obama.[2]


Joseph E. Lowery was born to Leroy and Dora Lowery on October 6, 1921. His mother was a teacher and his father owned a small business in Alabama.[3] When he was 11, he was abused and punched by a white police officer for not getting off the sidewalk as a white man was passing. Lowery ran home to get a gun, but his father arrived and talked him out of it.[4] His family sent him away while he attended middle school in Chicago, staying with relatives, but he returned to Huntsville, Alabama, to complete William Hooper Councill High School.[5] He attended Knoxville College and Alabama A&M College. Lowery graduated from Paine College. He was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.[3]

He attended ministerial training at Payne Theological Seminary and later on, he completed a Doctor of Divinity degree at the Chicago Ecumenical Institute.[5] He married Evelyn Gibson in 1950, a civil rights activist and leader in her own right. She was the sister of the late Harry Gibson, an activist, and elder member of the Northern Illinois conference of the United Methodist Church, Chicago area. She died on September 26, 2013.[6] They had three daughters: Yvonne Kennedy, Karen Lowery, and Cheryl Lowery-Osborne.[7] Lowery also had two sons, Joseph Jr. and LeRoy III, from an earlier marriage to Agnes Moore.[8]

American civil rights career

Lowery was pastor of the Warren Street Methodist Church,[9] in Mobile, Alabama, from 1952 to 1961. His career in the Civil Rights Movement took off in the early 1950s. After Rosa Parks' arrest in 1955, he helped lead the Montgomery bus boycott. He headed the Alabama Civic Affairs Association, an organization devoted to the desegregation of buses and public places. In 1957, along with Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, and others, Lowery founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and subsequently led the organization as its president from 1977 to 1997.[5][1]

Lowery's car and other property, along with that of other civil rights leaders, was seized in 1959 by the State of Alabama to pay damages resulting from a libel suit. The Supreme Court of the United States later reversed this decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. At the request of King, Lowery participated in the Selma to Montgomery march of 1965.[10] He was a co-founder and president of the Black Leadership Forum, a consortium of black advocacy groups. This Forum protested the existence of Apartheid in South Africa from the mid-1970s through the end of white minority rule there. Lowery was among the first five black men to be arrested outside the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C., during the Free South Africa movement. He served as the pastor of Cascade United Methodist Church in Atlanta from 1986 through 1992, adding over a thousand members and leaving the church with 10 acres (40,000 m2) of land.[4][11]

To honor him, the city government of Atlanta renamed Ashby Street for him. Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard is just west of downtown Atlanta and runs north-south beginning at West Marietta Street near the campus of the Georgia Institute of Technology and stretching to White Street in the "West End" neighborhood, running past Atlanta's Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Clark Atlanta University, Spelman College, Morehouse College, and Morris Brown College.[4]

Lowery advocated for LGBT civil rights,[12] including civil unions and, in 2012, same-sex marriage.[13]


Lowery died on March 27, 2020, in Atlanta, Georgia.[14]


Lowery meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House in 2011

Lowery received several awards. The NAACP gave him their Lifetime Achievement Award at its 1997 convention calling him the "dean of the civil rights movement". He received the inaugural Walter P. Reuther Humanitarian Award from Wayne State University in 2003.[15] He has also received the Martin Luther King Jr. Center Peace Award and the National Urban League's Whitney M. Young Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award, in 2004.[16] Ebony named him one of the 15 greatest black preachers, describing him as, "the consummate voice of biblical social relevancy, a focused voice, speaking truth to power."[17] Lowery also received several honorary doctorates from colleges and universities including, Dillard University, Morehouse College, Alabama State University, University of Alabama in Huntsville, and Emory University. In 2004, Lowery was honored at the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, located in Atlanta, Georgia.[18]

Lowery was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama, on July 30, 2009.[19] He was also given the Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute that year.[20]

Delta Airlines Boeing 757-200 N6716C is named for Lowery[21].

Remarks at Coretta Scott King's funeral

In 2006, at Coretta Scott King's funeral, Lowery received a standing ovation when he denounced the violence of war in Iraq compared to injustice for the poor, remarking before four U.S. presidents in attendance:

We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over there. 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!

Conservative observers said his comments were inappropriate in a setting meant to honor the life of Mrs. King, especially considering George W. Bush was present at the ceremony.[22][23]

President Barack Obama's inauguration benediction

On January 20, 2009, Lowery delivered the benediction at the inauguration of Senator Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America. He opened with lines from "Lift Every Voice and Sing", also known as "The Negro National Anthem", by James Weldon Johnson. He concluded with the following, an interpolation of Big Bill Broonzy's "Black, Brown and White":

Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, 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. Let all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen! Say Amen! And Amen! [24]

A number of conservative pundits including Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, and Michelle Malkin criticized this final passage, accusing it of being "divisive"[25] and "racialist."[26][27][28] Reporters in attendance called the passage a mocking of racial stereotypes, and said that the crowd received it with good humor.[29][30][31]

See also


  1. ^ a b Kirkland, W. Michael (2004). "Joseph Lowery (b. 1924)". New Georgia Encyclopedia. Staff editors (2019). Georgia Humanities and the University of Georgia Press.
  2. ^ Elliott, Debbie (March 28, 2020). "Rev. Joseph Lowery, 'Dean' Of The Civil Rights Movement, Dies At 98". National Public Radio. Retrieved March 28, 2020.
  3. ^ a b "Joseph Lowery, civil rights leader and Martin Luther King Jr. aide, dies at 98". USA Today. Associated Press. March 28, 2020. Retrieved March 28, 2020.
  4. ^ a b c "Remembering the Rev. Joseph Lowery". Atlanta Journal-Constitution. March 28, 2020. Retrieved March 28, 2020.
  5. ^ a b c Haskins, Jim; Kathleen Benson (2008). Black Stars: African-American Religious Leaders. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. p. 91.
  6. ^ "Civil rights activist Evelyn Lowery dies after stroke". CNN. September 26, 2013. Retrieved September 26, 2013.
  7. ^ Helsel, Phil (March 28, 2020). "Civil rights icon Rev. Joseph E. Lowery dies at 98". The Associated Press. NBC News. Retrieved March 28, 2020.
  8. ^ Thompson, Krissah (March 28, 2020). "Joseph Lowery, civil rights leader and aide to Martin Luther King Jr., dies at 98". The Washington Post. Retrieved March 28, 2020.
  9. ^ "Negroes Plan Mass Meeting In Mobile". St. Petersburg Times. Associated Press. January 2, 1957. p. 3. Retrieved May 20, 2012.
  10. ^ Amir Vera; Tricia Escobedo (March 28, 2020). "Joseph Lowery, civil rights leader, dies at 98". CNN.
  11. ^ "Civil rights leader Joseph Lowery dies at 98". 11Alive. WXIA-TV. March 27, 2020. Retrieved March 28, 2020.
  12. ^ Caldwell, Gilbert H. (May 4, 2000). "The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, Former President of SCLC Signs the United Methodists of Color for a Fully Inclusive Church Statement". Affirmation: United Methodists for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns. Archived from the original on December 21, 2008.
  13. ^ "Open Letter Embracing President Obama's Position On Equality for Gay & Lesbian Individuals - National Action Network". May 11, 2012. Retrieved October 6, 2014.
  14. ^ Brett, Jennifer; Suggs, Ernie (March 27, 2020). "Civil rights legend Rev. Joseph Lowery has died". The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Retrieved March 27, 2020.
  15. ^ "Lowery Institute". Archived from the original on October 23, 2019. Retrieved October 23, 2019.
  16. ^ Sharpe, Martel (February 22, 2019). "Civil rights activist Joseph E. Lowery's legacy still thrives in Atlanta | The Atlanta Voice". The Atlanta Voice | Atlanta GA News. Retrieved January 18, 2020.
  17. ^ "Family: 'Dean of the civil rights movement' Rev. Joseph E. Lowery passes away". Fox 5 New York. March 27, 2020. Retrieved March 28, 2020.
  18. ^ Donahue, Louise (November 29, 2004). "Civil rights activist Joseph Lowery to speak at Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation Jan. 10". University of California, Santa Cruz. Retrieved March 28, 2020.
  19. ^ "President Obama Names Medal of Freedom Recipients", White House Office of the Press Secretary, July 30, 2009
  20. ^ MacDonald, Ginny (August 8, 2009) "Civil rights pioneer Lowery to be honored." Birmingham News
  21. ^
  22. ^ Greenfield, Jeff (February 8, 2006). "Greenfield: 'Do you really do this at a funeral?'". CNN. Retrieved January 11, 2009.
  23. ^ Matthews, Chris (February 7, 2006). "'Hardball with Chris Matthews' for Feb. 7th". Hardball with Chris Matthews. Retrieved January 11, 2009.
  24. ^ "Text of Rev. Lowery's inauguration benediction". AP. January 20, 2009. Archived from the original on January 23, 2009. Retrieved January 20, 2009.
  25. ^ Beck, Glenn (January 20, 2009). "Is This How the Post-Racial Obama Administration Begins?". FOXNews. Retrieved January 21, 2009.
  26. ^ "About that race-based benediction: "When white will embrace what is right"". Michelle Malkin. January 20, 2009. Retrieved January 23, 2009.
  27. ^ "Prayers for America's day of celebration". Anglican Media Melbourne. January 21, 2009. Archived from the original on April 24, 2010. Retrieved January 21, 2009.
  28. ^ "Inaugural Benediction Causes Firestorm". January 21, 2009. Archived from the original on January 25, 2009. Retrieved January 21, 2009.
  29. ^ Kaufman, Jonathan (January 21, 2009). "Celebration Stirs a New Racial Optimism". "The Rev. Joseph Lowery, in his closing prayer, drew laughter when he mocked racial stereotypes and prayed for a day "when black will not be asked to get back...". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved January 22, 2009.
  30. ^ Grossman, Cathy Lynn (January 20, 2009). "Rev. Joseph Lowery's impassioned benediction". "Lowery also brought a smile to the president with a recitation he's used before, asking God to ...". USA Today. Retrieved January 22, 2009.
  31. ^ Mikkelsen, Randall (January 20, 2009). "Front Row Washington Tracking U.S. politics " Previous Post Next Post " January 20th, 2009 Rhyming reverend gets last word at Obama inaugural". "...what is right," Lowery said to laughter from the vast audience.". Reuters (News Wire). Archived from the original on January 24, 2009. Retrieved January 22, 2009.