Dean of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Joe Lowery, Dead at 98

Dr. Joe Lowery

By Hazel Trice Edney

( – Only a few hours after Barack Obama was declared the first Black president of the United States, Nov. 8, 2008, a reporter – on the phone with the Rev. Joseph Lowery, dean of the civil rights movement – asked him how he thought Black leaders and the Black press should hold President Obama accountable.

Known for his deep wisdom and quick wit whether preaching or conversing, Lowery – long time president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference – was clear and concise in his answer. He said, “We must speak truth to power no matter what color power is.”

His lifetime of that wise counsel, fiery sermons and dynamic civil rights leadership came to an end on Friday, March 27, as Lowery died, leaving his civil rights contemporaries, his family, loved ones, students and many protégés, students and followers around the world to celebrate and carry on his legacy. He was 98 years old.

“The Reverend Joseph Lowery was born and raised in Jim Crow Alabama with no power or privilege to speak of. But he had preaching in his blood. He had a conviction that he could join and inspire others to push for change. And he huddled with Dr. King and a few others in Montgomery to write the playbook and lay the groundwork for the movement that was to come,” wrote President Obama in a release responding to Lowery’s death. “From those early days of the movement to his long leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he did so much to carry us ever closer to the just, fair, inclusive, and generous America promised in our founding ideals. With boundless generosity, patience, and moral courage, he mentored and encouraged a whole new generation of activists and leaders.”

None would know more about his leadership and example than his three daughters, Yvonne, Karen, and Cheryl, and his 12 grandchildren who are receiving prayers and condolences from Americans and people of other nations this week.

“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,” the family said in a statement. “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.”

While respecting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines on COVID-19 prevention and social distancing, the Lowery family announced that plans are underway for a private family service with a public memorial to be held in late summer or early fall.

Meanwhile, the family has asked that donations be made to The Joseph & Evelyn Lowery Institute for Justice & Human Rights. Donations can be sent to The Joseph & Evelyn Lowery Institute, P.O. Box 92801, Atlanta, GA 30314. After nearly 70 years of marriage, his beloved Evelyn Lowery died on Sept. 26, 2013.

Dr. Lowery’s tireless life and works were recalled this week by multiple civil rights colleagues who issued statements.

“He was an exceptional visionary with tremendous follow through and he was very successful in taking the SCLC to the next level in terms of entrepreneurship, building the worldwide recognition of the organization and educating society about Dr. King’s philosophy and contributions. He was a highly effective leader,” said Dr. Charles Steele, current president and CEO of the SCLC. “He had the gift of understanding people and working with individuals from all sectors of society. He was recognized as a great orator for delivering some powerful speeches, but he was just as gifted at motivating people from different cultures, religions and agendas to convene at the table to work together for the common good. With the problems we are addressing today around the world, he would continue to be that catalyst to bring folks together. He was that glue that kept us at the table until we found the solutions.”
Lowery was known and loved for his sacrificial heart for others. Heads of civil rights organizations generations behind him, learned from his style of leadership.

“I was blessed to be mentored by Dr. Lowery as he served as a founding board member for the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, that was founded in May 1976,” said Melanie Campbell, president/CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and Convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable. What I remember most about Dr. Lowery was he taught me and so many others—the power of unity, the power of working together and the power of coalitions, to move our Black agenda forward in good times and in bad times. My favorite quote by Dr. Lowery, that motivated generations to keep up the fight for justice was: ‘We ain’t going back. We’ve come too far, marched too long, prayed too hard, wept too bitterly, bled too profusely and died too young, to let anybody turn back the clock on our journey to justice.’
National Urban League President/CEO Marc Morial described Lowery as a “bridge between the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century and the current era, working side by side with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and speaking at the inauguration of President Barack Obama. The loss of a voice of his stature during a time of intense crisis in the nation is especially wrenching.”

The following is just a part of Dr. Lowery’s biography from

Hailed as the “Dean of the Civil Rights Movement” upon his receipt of the NAACP’s “Lifetime Achievement Award,” Rev. Dr. Joseph Echols Lowery has assumed and executed a broad and diverse series of roles over the span of his eight decades: leader, pastor/preacher, servant, father, husband, freedom fighter, and advocate.

One milestone in this remarkable journey took place on August 12, 2009 when President Barack Obama awarded him the nation’s highest civilian honor: The Presidential Medal of Freedom, in recognition of his lifelong commitment to the nonviolent struggle for the causes of justice, human rights, economic equality, voting rights, peace and human dignity. Prior to that, on January 20, 2009, in his inimitable style; Dr. Lowery delivered the Benediction on the occasion of President Obama’s inauguration as the 44th President of the United States.

Born in Huntsville, Alabama, on October 6th, 1921, Rev. Dr. Lowery’s legacy of service and struggle is long and rich. His genesis as a Civil Rights advocate dates to the early 1950s where, in Mobile, Alabama he headed the Alabama Civic Affairs Association; the organization which led the movement to desegregate buses and public accommodations. In 1957, with friend and colleague, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. he was a Co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), where served in an array of leadership positions, including: Vice President (1957-67); Chairman of the Board (1967-77); and as President and Chief Executive Officer from (1977-1998).

In 1961, he was one of four Alabama pastors whose property was seized by the Alabama Courts in an historic, precedent setting libel suit, Sullivan v. NY Times, Abernathy, Lowery, Shuttlesworth, & Seay, because of their civil rights work. The United States Supreme Court vindicated the ministers in a landmark ruling which remains an important element in the protections afforded the free speech rights of the press, and of citizens advocating and protesting for justice and societal change.

In March of 1965, he was chosen by Dr. King to chair the Delegation delivering the demands of the Selma-to-Montgomery March George Wallace, the Governor of Alabama.  As the world witnessed, Wallace ordered the marchers beaten in the incident that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday”, which ultimately led to enactment of the Voting Rights Act.

Throughout his career, Rev. Dr. Lowery’s commitment to human rights and social justice exists on a global scale. His work resulted in the desegregation of Nashville, Tennessee schools, presenting Nelson Mandela with the Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Award following his release from prison in 1990, leading a peace delegation to Lebanon and nations in Central America to seek justice by nonviolent means, and securing millions of dollars in contracts for minority businesses in the Southern region of the United States.

His efforts also emphasize the need to uplift and empower historically disenfranchised communities. Ranging from supporting the families affected by the Atlanta “Missing and Murdered Children Crisis” through setting up funds with Citizen Trust Bank, demanding election reform and economic justice as Convener of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda (GCPA), to advocating for the rights of Black farmers discriminated against by the Department of Agriculture – Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery remains committed to cultivating the Beloved Community and reminds us to “turn TO each other not ON each other!” Ebony Magazine, in recognizing Rev. Dr. Lowery as one of the nation’s “15 Greatest Black Preachers,” described him as the “consummate voice of biblical social relevancy, a focused prophetic voice, speaking truth to power”, and his strong dedication to faith and inclusion is evident in all of his work.

As Obama concluded this week, “He was a giant who let so many of us stand on his shoulders.”

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