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‘Face in the Place’ Civil Rights Leader Reverend Dr. Joseph E. Lowery Dies at 98 (October 6, 1921 – March 27, 2020)

The Atlanta Inquirer family mourns the passing of Civil Rights leader Reverend Dr. Joseph E. Lowery, who died on March 27, 2020, and is so grateful that he was the “Face in the Place,” as he so eloquently commented about others who would be unashamedly present in the struggle for cultural equity and against human indignity and poverty.

Joseph Echols Lowery was born to Leroy and Dora Lowery on October 6, 1921 in Huntsville, Alabama. He was the great-grandson of Reverend Green Echols, the first Black pastor of Lakeside Methodist Church in Huntsville. He attended middle school in Chicago while staying with relatives and returned to Huntsville to complete William Hooper Councill High School. Interesting enough, William Hooper Councill High School was the first public high school for Blacks and had been named after William Hooper Councill, a former slave and the founder and first president of Huntsville Normal School (now called Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical (A & M) University) in Normal, Alabama. Lowery was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.

Lowery attended the Knoxville College and Alabama A & M College (now called Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical (A & M) University). Lowery entered the Paine Theological Seminary to become a Methodist minister. He graduated Paine College in 1943 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology. He completed a Doctor of Divinity degree at the Chicago Ecumenical Institute.

He was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement who organized and marched alongside Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, its chair of the board, beginning in 1967 and its third president from 1977 to 1997, the SCLC’s longest serving president.

He married the late Evelyn Gibson in 1947, Clark College graduate and fellow Civil Rights activist, in 1950. They remained married until her death on September 26, 2013. They had three daughters: Yvonne Kennedy, Karen Lowery and Cheryl Lowery-Osborne.

Lowery was pastor of the Warren Street Methodist Church, in Mobile, Alabama, from 1952 to 1961. After Rosa Parks’ arrest in 1955, he helped lead the Montgomery bus boycott. He headed the Alabama Civic Affairs Association, an organization devoted to the desegregation of buses and public places.

In 1959 – 1960, Lowery signed the “Heed their Rising Voices” advertisement in the New York Times, calling for support of Civil Rights protestors and donations for Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legal defense fund in support of freedom in the South. Over one hundred entertainers and community leaders had signed this petition / appeal which was placed as an advertisement in the New York Times. Lowery was one of many ministers to sign this appeal. A Montgomery, Alabama commissioner Lester Bruce (L. B.) Sullivan, sued the New York Times, Lowery and the other three ministers in Alabama who had signed the appeal for libel. Lowery’s property had been seized by the State of Alabama as part of the settlement of a libel suit. The Supreme Court of the United States later ordered this court decision to be reversed.

Others that signed this appeal included Harry and Julie Belafonte; Marlon Brando; Mrs. Ralph [Ruth] Bunche; Diahann Carroll; Nat King Cole; Dorothy Dandridge; Ossie Davis; Ruby Dee; Sammy Davis, Jr.; Langston Hughes; Mahalia Jackson; Eartha Kitt; John Lewis; Sidney Poitier; Asa Philip (A. Philip) Randolph; Jackie Robinson; and Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt. Of the many ministers that signed the appeal, aside from Lowery, others that signed it included Reverend Ralph David Abernathy (Montgomery, Alabama); Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth (Birmingham, Alabama); Reverend William Holmes Borders (Atlanta, Georgia); Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. (Atlanta, Georgia); Reverend Solomon Snowden (S. S.) Seay, Sr. (Montgomery, Alabama); Reverend Samuel W. Williams (Atlanta, Georgia); and Reverend Thomas Kilgore, Jr.

Lowery, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other activists led the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965, known as “Bloody Sunday.” Lowery was a co-founder and former president of the Black Leadership Forum, a consortium of Black advocacy groups, fighting against the existence of Apartheid in South Africa. Lowery was among the first five Black men to be arrested outside the South African Embassy in Washington, D. C., during the Free South Africa movement.

In 1982, Lowery led a march from Tuskegee, Alabama, to Washington, D. C. to promote the extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In 1949, Lowery became pastor of East Thomas United Methodist Church, Birmingham, Alabama; in 1952, pastor of Warren Street Methodist Church, Mobile, Alabama; and, in 1961, administrative assistant to Bishop Charles F. Golden, Nashville, Tennessee. While in Tennessee, Lowery helps to desegregate hotels and restaurants.

In 1964, Lowery became pastor of St. Paul’s Methodist Church, Birmingham, Alabama; in 1968, pastor of Central United Methodist Church, Atlanta, Georgia; and, in 1970, instructor at Emory University Candler School of Theology and Nursery School.

Lowery served as the pastor of Cascade United Methodist Church in Atlanta from 1986 through 1992.

To honor Lowery, the City of Atlanta renamed Ashby Street for him: Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard, which is west of downtown Atlanta. The street is in the “West End” area of Atlanta, Georgia and intersects both Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard.

Lowery has received numerous awards. In 1990, he was awarded warded the Martin Luther King Jr., Nonviolent Peace Prize. The NAACP gave him an award at its 1997 convention for being the “Dean of the Civil Rights Movement,” and Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2001, Clark Atlanta University (formerly Clark College) established the Joseph E. Lowery Institute for Justice and Human Rights. He received the inaugural Walter P. Reuther Humanitarian Award from Wayne State University in 2003. He has also received the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center Peace Award and the National Urban League’s Whitney M. Young Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award, in 2004. In 2004, Lowery was honored at the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, located in Atlanta, Georgia. Ebony magazine has named him one of the fifteen greatest Black preachers, describing him as, “the consummate voice of biblical social relevancy, a focused voice, speaking truth to power.” Lowery was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by United States President Barack Obama on July 30, 2009 and was presented it on August 12, 2009. He was also given the Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in 2009.

Lowery has also received several honorary doctorates from colleges and universities including, Dillard University, Morehouse College, Alabama State University, University of Alabama in Huntsville, and Emory University.

On January 20, 2009, Lowery delivered the benediction at the inauguration of Senator Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America. He opened with lines from Lift Every Voice and Sing (“The Negro National Anthem” by James Weldon Johnson). As he finished, he added a paraphrasing of Big Bill Broonzy’s Black, Brown and White, saying, “Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get 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. Let all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen! Say Amen! And Amen!”

Lowery is survived by his three daughters: Yvonne Kennedy, Karen Lowery and Cheryl Lowery-Osborne, and several grandchildren.

Joseph Echols Lowery, at Benefit for Reverend C. T. Vivian, 2019-07-30, Photo by John B. Smith, Jr.
Lowerys and Barack Obama, 2007-03-04, Photo by John B. Smith, Jr.
Rev James E Orange and Rev Dr Joseph E Lowery, 2003-08-20, Photo By John B Smith Jr
A Young, I Farris, J E Lowery, E G Lowery, B J Young, 2011-03-29, Photo By John B. Smith, Jr.

Last updated on March 29, 2020

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