In February 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was in jail, he issued a statement to his associates about plans and strategies to pursue. Only two people were mentioned twice—and one of them was the Rev. Joseph Lowery.
King told him to get in touch with Florida Gov. Leroy Collins and President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Lowery, a trusted colleague, carried out the orders promptly and that helped to bring global attention to the mounting protest in Selma, Alabama.
Often working quietly and effectively behind the scenes was something that characterized Rev. Lowery’s work, though he was quite capable of taking his voice to the podium. That influence was never underrated by King and it was stilled Friday in Atlanta. Rev. Joseph Lowery was 98.
His role in the coordination of the famous march from Selma to Montgomery was a crowning achievement for him on a path that began in 1955 when he was at the helm of the Alabama Civic Affairs Association and spearheading the successful 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Another crest in his significant odyssey was when he delivered the benediction at President Obama’s inauguration in 2009 and later was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Freedom, justice and equality were like a mantra for Lowery who was born on Oct. 6, 1921 in Huntsville, Alabama. His mother, Dora, was a teacher and his father, Leroy, owned a small business. When he was 11 and forcibly accosted by a police officer after he refused to get off the sidewalk, he rushed home to get a gun but his father intervened and convinced him to suppress his anger. Subsequently, he was sent to Chicago to cool out but returned later to Huntsville to graduate from high school.
He attended several colleges, including Alabama A&M before going on to obtain his ministerial training at Payne Theological Seminary and his Doctor of Divinity from the Chicago Ecumenical Institute. In 1950, he married Evelyn Gibson, herself a noted activist, and they had three daughters. He had two sons from an earlier marriage to Agnes Moore.
From 1952 to 1961, Lowery was the pastor of the Warren Street Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama. It was between these two years that he took his place in the Civil Rights Movement and in 1957, along with several other notables, he founded the Southern Christian Leadership Council, serving as its president from 1977 to 1997. He also played a vital role in counseling and consoling Vivian Malone in 1963 when she was one of the first students to integrate the University of Alabama.
On Saturday, the Obamas expressed their gratitude for Lowery’s role in the presidential election campaign and his contribution to American life. He was, they said, “a giant who let so many of us stand on his shoulders.” To them, he “changed the face of America. He carried the baton longer and surer than almost anybody. It falls to the rest of us now to pick it up and never stop moving forward until we finish what he started—that journey to justice.”
The Rev. Bernice King, Dr. King’s daughter, tweeted that she was “grateful for a life well-lived and for its influence on mine. I’ll miss you Uncle Joe.”
And so will countless other Americans who can exercise their vote, participate in a society that he helped to forge, and reflect again on what true character and integrity is all about.