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Rev. Joseph Lowery, head of SCLC and dean of civil rights veterans, dies at 98

Free Press staff report | , Free Press wire reports | 4/2/2020, 6 p.m.
The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery fought to end segregation, lived to see the election of the country’s first African-American president ...
The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, center, sits with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., left, and Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker at First African Baptist Church in Richmond during a Southern Christian Leadership Conference convention in September 1963. Associated Press file photo

In 2009, President Obama awarded Rev. Lowery the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Rev. Lowery’s involvement in civil rights grew out of his Christian faith.

Born in Huntsville, Ala., in 1921, Rev. Lowery grew up in a Methodist church where his great-grandfather, the Rev. Howard Echols, was the first black pastor. His father, a grocery store owner, often protested racism in the community.

After college, Rev. Lowery edited a newspaper and taught school in Birmingham, but the idea of becoming a minister “just kept gnawing and gnawing at me,” he said. After marrying Evelyn Gibson, a Methodist preacher’s daughter, he began his first pastorate in Birmingham in 1948.

Like Dr. King, Rev. Lowery juggled his civil rights work with ministry. He pastored United Methodist churches in Atlanta for decades and continued preaching long after retiring. He often preached that racial discrimination in housing, employment and health care was at odds with such fundamental Christian values as human worth and the brotherhood of man.

“I’ve never felt your ministry should be totally devoted to making a heavenly home. I thought it should also be devoted to making your home here heavenly,” he once said.

Rev. Lowery remained active in fighting issues such as war, poverty and racism long after retirement, and survived prostate cancer and throat surgery after he beat Jim Crow.

“We have lost a stalwart of the Civil Rights Movement, and I have lost a friend and mentor,” House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn of South Carolina said in a statement last Saturday. “His wit and candor inspired my generation to use civil disobedience to move the needle on ‘liberty and justice for all.’ It was his life’s work and his was a life well lived.”

Former President Clinton remembered walking with Rev. Lowery across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on the 35th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. “Our country has lost a brave, visionary leader in the struggle for justice and a champion of its promise, still unrealized, of equality for all Americans. Throughout his long good life, Joe Lowery’s commitment to speaking truth to power never wavered, even in the hottest fires.”

Rev. Lowery’s wife, who worked alongside her husband of nearly 70 years and served as head of SCLC/WOMEN, died in 2013.

Rev. Lowery was pastor of the Warren Street Methodist Church in Mobile, Ala., in the 1950s when he met Dr. King, who then lived in Montgomery, Ala. Rev. Lowery’s meetings with Dr. King, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy and other civil rights activists led to the SCLC’s formation in 1957. The group became a leading force in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s.

He became SCLC president in 1977 following the resignation of Rev. Abernathy, who had taken the job after Dr. King was assassinated in 1968. He took over an SCLC that was deeply in debt and losing members rapidly. He helped the organization survive and guided it on a new course that embraced more mainstream social and economic policies.