‘Dean of the Civil Rights Movement’ dies at age 98


President Barack Obama awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery during a ceremony at the White House on Aug. 12, 2009.


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. Dr. 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, Dr. Lowery – longtime president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) – was clear and concise in his answer.

“We must speak truth to power no matter what color power is,” he said.

His lifetime of that wise counsel, fiery sermons and dynamic civil rights leadership came to an end on 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.

Preacher, mentor, activist

President Obama wrote in a release responding to Dr. Lowery’s death.

“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,” Obama wrote.

“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 out-pouring 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.”

Private service, public memorial

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.

Medal of Freedom recipient

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,” said Steele.

Hailed as the “Dean of the Civil Rights Movement” upon his receipt of the NAACP’s  Lifetime Achievement Award, the Rev. Dr. Joseph Echols Lowery 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 Aug. 12, 2009 when President Barack Obama awarded him the nation’s highest civilian honor, 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 Jan. 20, 2009, in his inimitable style; Dr. Lowery delivered the benediction on the occasion of President Obama’s inauguration as the 44thPresident of the United States.

Co-founded SCLC with MLK

Born in Huntsville, Alabama, on Oct. 6, 1921, his legacy of service and struggle is long and rich.

His genesis as a civil rights advocate dates to the early 1950s where, in Mobile, Ala., 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 he served in an array of leadership positions, including: vice president (1957-67); chairman of the board (1967-77); and as president and CEO from (1977-1998).

Major civil rights efforts

In March of 1965, he was chosen by Dr. King to chair the delegation delivering the demands of the Selma-to-Montgomery March to 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.

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.

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


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