I wrote this story in 2015. It is time for an update. Reverend Dr. Joseph E. Lowery, age 96 years young, is still giving advice and making more history today than he did in his hay-day. I discovered that Reverend Lowery loves neck bones, and every now and then I prepare this dish, the way my grandmother did, and I share it with my dear friend.
The Reverend Dr. Joseph Echols Lowery is my neighbor and my friend. As a matter of fact, his family is near and very dear to me and my family. We make our homes in Southwest Atlanta and we are neighbors. I realize that nothing I have mentioned so far makes him the history maker that he is; however, it clearly shows the readers that I am partial to this man and his legacy.
Minister, civil rights leader, social activist, preacher, husband and father, Joseph Lowery has fought against bigotry, prejudice and discrimination wherever he saw it imposed against the downtrodden, the undeserved, poor people, and Black people for most of his lifetime. His actions have truly changed the course of history.
Born on October 6, 1921 in Huntsville, AL, we must give the credit for getting Joseph started on the right path to his parents, Leroy and Dora Lowery, a businessman and a teacher. He attended middle school in Chicago while staying with relatives, but he returned to Huntsville where he completed William Hooper Council High School. He grew up in the segregated South and learned firsthand the hardships and cruelty that many African-Americans experienced. At the age of 12, he was assaulted by a white officer as they attempted to enter and exit through the same door. Lowery matriculated at Knoxville College and Alabama A&M College, Paine Theological Seminary and the Chicago Ecumenical Institute. He was ordained in the Methodist Church in 1952.
Lowery found his soul-mate Evelyn Gibson and they were married in 1947. A civil rights activist and leader in her own right, she was the sister of the late Rev. Dr. Harry Gibson, an activist, and Elder member of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church, Chicago Area. She passed away on September 26, 2013. They had three daughters: Yvonne Kennedy, Karen Lowery, and Cheryl Lowery; and a host of grandchildren.
As an ordained Methodist minister, Lowery brought his new wife to Alabama where he served as pastor for the Warren Street United Methodist Church in Mobile. He became active in the evolving civil rights movement and began to follow his God-given purpose toward fighting against social injustice. He headed the Alabama Civil Affairs Association, the organization which led the movement to desegregate buses and public accommodations.
In 1957, Lowery worked with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph David Abernathy, and others to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He became the organization’s vice president and helped the group with efforts to fight for equality through nonviolent actions. In 1961, he was one of four Alabama ministers (Lowery, Abernathy, Solomon Seay) sued for libel by a Montgomery commissioner because of a 1960 newspaper ad that made critiques of the city’s police department. Their assets were taken when the court ruled against the SCLC members. After an appeal, the case, was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1964.
Lowery moved to Birmingham, Alabama, in 1964, and served as the pastor for St. Paul’s Church. Continuing to speak out about civil rights, he participated in copious protests including the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery. He was chosen by Dr. King to Chair the delegation delivering the demands of the Selma-to-Montgomery March to Alabama Governor George Wallace. These demonstrations were part of the campaign for voter’s rights and a response to the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a civil rights protestor, by an Alabama state trooper.
The Black Leadership Forum, a group of Black advocacy leaders and organizations, was yet another organization co-founded by Lowery which was dedicated to protesting Apartheid in South Africa through the end of the white-minority rule. Lowery was one of the first Black men arrested at the African Embassy in Washington, D. C. during the free South Africa movement.
In 1968, the same year that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Lowery took over as pastor at the Central UM Church in Atlanta. He also became the chairman of the SCLC around this time, serving as one of the organization’s leaders who spoke with the voice of the people. In 1977, Lowery won the presidency of the SCLC over more radical factions. He helped revitalize the organization, bringing in new members and focusing on such pressing issues in the African-American community as police brutality and human rights.
Lowery was called to a new United Methodist Church in the mid-1980s. As the pastor of the Cascade United Methodist Church, he helped increase the size of the congregation and improve its financial situation. Lowery remained politically and socially active, campaigning against the ills of the city. His sermons in the churches around Atlanta were illustrious and most notable – not a vacant seat in the audience. (I know this because I was one who squeezed myself in to the pews to witness this skillful speaker.)
Even after his retirement in 1992, Lowery continued to fight for causes against social injustice and for the rights of others. He was extremely active in the effort to remove the Confederate symbols from the Georgia state flag. While chairing the MARTA Board of Directors, he was the reasonable voice in the community’s planning process as the city of Atlanta prepared for 1996 Olympics.
President Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president, selected Lowery to deliver the benediction at his inauguration in January, 2009. In his speech, Lowery quoted from the “Negro National Anthem” (Lift Every Voice and Sing) and called for the president and the rest of the nation “to work for that day. . . when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.”
In 2009, President Obama named Reverend Dr. Joseph E. Lowery to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. America’s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom is awarded to individuals who make an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.
Rev. Lowery is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. and attends Cascade United Methodist Church. He has received numerous accolades for his work, including Ebony magazine’s Black Achievement Award. Clark Atlanta University established the Joseph E. Lowery Institute for Justice and Human Rights in his honor. He is known as the “Dean of the Civil Rights Movement.” The City of Atlanta renamed Ashby Street to Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard. His footprints are embedded in the Civil Rights Walk of Fame housed near the Martin Luther King Jr National Historic Site. The NAACP gave him a lifetime achievement award. He has received the Martin Luther King Jr. Center’s Peace Award; and the National Urban League gave him the Whitney Young Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award; and he was awarded the Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. He has been awarded many honorary doctorate degrees from prestigious colleges and universities.
Not finished with what God called him to do, Lowery founded the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda which continues to meet every Tuesday at noon in the SCLC offices on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta. He shows up at community events and participates in worthy causes, and primarily dedicates and reserves his efforts to help sustain the Lowery Institute. Dr. Lowery recently celebrated his 94th birthday with a host of friends and family in October, 2015 at the Delta Flight Museum, a fundraising effort to promote and sustain the work of the Lowery Institute.
Happy Birthday Dr. Lowery . . . and many more. Genuinely loved and revered by countless, Reverend Lowery is one of our treasures. History will reflect his genius and his service to mankind and woman kind alike. What a life! What a legacy! What a man! I agree, God is not finished with you yet!