The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery fought to end segregation, lived to see the election of the countrys first black president and echoed the call for “justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” in America.
For more than four decades after the death of his friend and civil rights icon, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the fiery Alabama preacher was on the front line of the battle for equality, with an unforgettable delivery that rivaled Kings — and was often more unpredictable. Lowery had a knack for cutting to the core of the countrys conscience with commentary steeped in scripture, refusing to back down whether the audience was a Jim Crow racist or a U.S. president.
“We ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back; when brown can stick around; when yellow will be mellow; when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right,” Lowery prayed at President Barack Obamas inaugural benediction in 2009.
Lowery, 98, died Friday at home in Atlanta, surrounded by family members, they said in a statement.
He died from natural causes unrelated to the coronavirus outbreak, the statement said.
“Tonight, the great Reverend Joseph E. Lowery transitioned from earth to eternity,” The King Center in Atlanta remembered Lowery in a Friday night tweet. “He was a champion for civil rights, a challenger of injustice, a dear friend to the King family.”
Tonight, the great Reverend Joseph E. Lowery transitioned from earth to eternity. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family. He was a champion for civil rights, a challenger of injustice, a dear friend to the King family.
Thank you, sir.
[: MLK, Lowery, Wyatt Tee Walker] pic.twitter.com/PGHpBJJjNm
— The King Center (@TheKingCenter) March 28, 2020
Lowery led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for two decades — restoring the organizations financial stability and pressuring businesses not to trade with South Africas apartheid-era regime — before retiring in 1997.
Considered the dean of civil rights veterans, he lived to celebrate a November 2008 milestone that few of his movement colleagues thought they would ever witness — the election of an African-American president.
At an emotional victory celebration for President-elect Barack Obama in Atlanta, Lowery said, “America tonight is in the process of being born again.”
An early and enthusiastic supporter of Obama over then-Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, Lowery also gave the benediction at Obamas inauguration.
“We thank you for the empowering of thy servant, our 44th president, to inspire our nation to believe that, yes, we can work together to achieve a more perfect union,” he said.
In 2009, Obama awarded Lowery the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nations highest civilian honor.
In another high-profile moment, Lowery drew a standing ovation at the 2006 funeral of Kings widow, Coretta Scott King, when he criticized the war in Iraq, saying, “For war, billions more, but no more for the poor.” The comment also drew head shakes from then-President George Bush and his father, former president George H.W. Bush, who were seated behind the pulpit.
Lowerys involvement in civil rights grew naturally out of his Christian faith. 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.
“Ive 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.
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.
His wife, Evelyn Gibson Lowery, who worked alongside her husband of nearly 70 years and served as head of SCLC/WOMEN, died in 2013.
“Ill miss you, Uncle Joe. You finally made it up to see Aunt Evelyn again,” Kings daughter, Bernice King, said in a tweet Friday night.
Lowery was pastor of the Warren Street Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama, in the 1950s when he met King, who then lived in Montgomery, Alabama.
Lowerys meetings with King, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy and other civil rights activists led to the SCLCs formation in 1957. The group became a leading force in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s.
Lowery became SCLC president in 1977 following the resignation of Abernathy, who had taken the job after King was assassinated in 1968. He took over an SCLC that was deeply in debt and losing members rapidly. Lowery helped the organization survive and guided it on a new course that embraced more mainstream social and economic policies.
Coretta Scott King once said Lowery “has led more marches and been in the trenches more than anyone since Martin.”
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