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Rev. Joseph Lowery (1921–2020), civil rights leader & MLK colleague

by Linnea Crowther

Rev. Joseph Lowery was a leader of the American civil rights movement who cofounded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) along with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He also helped organize the pivotal Montgomery bus boycott.

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Died: March 27, 2020 (Who else died on March 27?)

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Details of death: Died at home in Atlanta of natural causes at the age of 98.


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A fighter for civil rights: When Lowery began his lifetime of work as a civil rights leader, he was pastor of the Warren Street Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama. There, he cofounded and led the Alabama Civil Affairs Association, which organized a successful bus boycott in Mobile that prompted the removal of the law that Black bus passengers had to give up their seats to White passengers. He went on to help Dr. King organize a similar boycott in Montgomery, one of the great catalysts for the Civil Rights Movement. In 1957, Lowery helped Dr. King found the SCLC, and he later became the group’s third president, leading it from 1977 to 1997. Lowery marched in the famous Selma to Montgomery march of 1965, and he cofounded the Black Leadership Forum. In later years, Lowery became the pastor of Atlanta’s Cascade United Methodist Church. Lowery gave the benediction at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, and he spoke at the 2006 funeral of Coretta Scott King.

Widely honored: Lowery was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented to him by President Obama in 2009. He received the NAACP’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997, and the National Urban League awarded him their Whitney M. Young Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004. A street is named for Lowery in Atlanta, and he is featured in the city’s International Civil Rights Walk of Fame.

Notable quote: “Lord, in memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us ask 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.” —From Lowery’s benediction at President Obama’s inauguration

What people said about him: “Rev. Joseph Lowery was a giant who let so many of us stand on his shoulders. With boundless generosity, patience, and moral courage, he encouraged a new generation of activists and leaders. Michelle and I remember him fondly today, and our love and prayers are with his family.” —President Barack Obama

“Rev. Joseph Lowery was one of those leaders in our history who expanded the moral imagination of our country. He committed his life to the cause of equality—unrelentingly confronting bigotry to advance justice. We are forever indebted to him for his work.” —Sen. Cory Booker

“With the passing of Reverend Joseph Lowery, our country has lost a brave, visionary leader in the struggle for justice and a champion of its promise, still unrealized, of equality for all Americans. Hillary and I are grateful for his friendship.” —President Bill Clinton

“With the passing of Rev. Joseph Lowery, the world lost a spiritual leader — a sage who understood that politics did not stand separate from who we are but told the story of who we are willing to be. May God’s peace smile upon his newest angel, peace to his beloveds.” —Former U.S. Rep. Stacey Abrams

Full obituary: The New York Times

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