The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) mourns the loss of Reverend Doctor Joseph Echols Lowery, the “dean” of the civil rights movement who played a critical role in laying its foundations and shepherding its triumphs. On March 27, Rev. Lowery passed away peacefully at his home in Atlanta surrounded by his family. He was 98 years old.
“Rev. Lowery was a stalwart of the civil rights movement,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, LDF’s President and Director-Counsel. “For decades, he played a critical leadership role in the fight to achieve racial justice in this country. His unwavering tenacity and his powerful, uncompromising oration enlightened and inspired generations of civil rights activists and leaders. Rev. Lowery’s legacy lives on in those of us who were privileged to witness his example and hear his call to action. Lowery is a great and towering figure, a true, American icon. His loss is a monumental one for our nation.”
Rev. Lowery was born in Huntsville, Alabama on Oct. 6, 1921. He received his undergraduate degree in sociology from Paine College in Augusta, Georgia and was trained as a minister at Payne Theological Seminary in Wilberforce, Ohio — the oldest free-standing African American seminary in the country. He was ordained in the United Methodist Church. Rev. Lowery also later earned a Doctor of Divinity degree from the Chicago Ecumenical Institute.
Rev. Lowery was involved in the civil rights movement from its inception. In the early 1950s, he spearheaded the Alabama Civic Affairs Association, and worked tirelessly to desegregate public transportation and accommodation throughout the state.
Rev. Lowery also worked shoulder to shoulder with LDF during many pivotal moments of the movement. Rev. Lowery helped organize the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, for which LDF provided legal representation. In the historic 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Lowery led the delegation that delivered demands to Alabama’s “segregation now, segregation forever” governor, George Wallace. LDF attorneys, including former Director-Counsel Jack Greenberg, served as key strategists for the march, filing a proposed plan and march route with the court in March 1965. Six months later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed in direct response to the activism and national awareness-raising surrounding “Bloody Sunday” and the Selma to Montgomery march.
As part of this advocacy work, Rev. Lowery co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1957. After serving the organization for 20 years, Rev. Lowery became the SCLC’s third president in 1977 – and remained in that role until 1998. During his tenure, Rev. Lowery expanded the organization’s civil rights portfolio to the international realm. The SCLC became involved in the anti-apartheid protests in the 1970s and 80s, staging demonstrations at South African consulates in the United States (including one at which Mr. Lowery was arrested) and pushing American companies to divest from South Africa for as long as the country’s apartheid regime remained in place. The SCLC also helped organize Nelson Mandela’s trip to Atlanta after the South African leader was released from prison in 1990.
Rev. Lowery also founded the Black Leadership Forum in 1977, which today promotes the legislative and policy interests of African Americans and ensures the needs of the black community are met through public policy and legislation. The Forum was originally created to coordinate Black leadership efforts and empower African Americans politically and socially.
Through the decades, Rev. Lowery consulted LDF on various civil rights issues. LDF’s board minutes report that, in 1989, he called former Director-Counsel Julius Chambers to discuss a response strategy to the disappointing 1989 Supreme Court decision in Richmond v. Croson. The decision was a terrible setback to the city of Richmond’s minority business program, and Lowery was concerned about a similar case pending in Atlanta.
Moreover, in October 2010, LDF represented Rev. Lowery and other notable civil rights leaders in a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of John Hithon in a discrimination suit against his employer, Tyson Foods. Part of the evidence backing Hithon’s claim was his white boss’s habit of referring to him, an African-American man, using the derogatory term “boy.” The brief stated that the Amici, including Lowery, “are intimately familiar with the language of racial discrimination and its demeaning and harmful effects. They share the view that use of the term ‘boy’ to describe an African-American man is deeply offensive and that its use reflects discriminatory intent.”
Former LDF Director-Counsel Elaine Jones, who received the Joseph D. Lowery Lamplighter Award in April 2003, commented:
“For at least 20 years beginning in the 1980’s Rev. Lowery used his extraordinary leadership and organizational talents serving as the Chair of a new group known as the Black Leadership Forum.
Black leaders from diverse fields would meet at regularly scheduled intervals and spend a couple of days discussing issues of immediate and long-term concern to Black America. We would not have won many battles without Joe Lowery’s steadfast leadership of the Forum. LDF is immensely grateful for his hands-on involvement and for educating the far-flung African American community and leadership about what was at stake in many important civil rights cases.
He was truly LDF’s partner and brought along with him all those who contributed greatly to our ultimate success. LDF depended on him; we will always be grateful to this immensely caring, strategically-brilliant civil rights hero.”
Later in life, Rev. Lowery continued to attract national attention, particularly after he delivered the benediction at former President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. “Lord, in the complex arena of human relations, help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance,” Rev. Lowery powerfully proclaimed at the time. “And, as we leave this mountaintop, help us to hold on to the spirit of fellowship and the oneness of our family. Let us take that power back to our homes, our workplaces, our churches, our temples, our mosques, or wherever we seek your will.” That same year, President Obama presented Rev. Lowery with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States.
The Joseph and Evelyn Lowery Institute for Justice & Human Rights at Clark Atlanta University is named after Mr. Lowery and his late wife. The organization was founded in 2001 to “ensure the continuity of the advocacy of Dr. Lowery and his lifelong, enduring commitment to non-violent advocacy, and to the moral, ethical, and theological imperative of justice and human rights for all people.”
In an interview about balancing his work as a pastor and a civil rights activist, Rev. Lowery once noted, “I see the pastor’s role as not only helping people make heaven their home, but making their homes here heavenly — which means justice, enough to eat, adequate housing, and all of those good things.” The Reverend’s words underscore how he perceived the fight for equality and justice as the crux of his multifaceted work.
Mr. Lowery is survived by his three daughters, two sons, and twelve grandchildren. A public memorial for Mr. Lowery will be held in the late summer or early fall.