Joseph Lowery (b. 1924)
Background and Early Career
Joseph Echols Lowery was born in Huntsville, Alabama, on October 6, 1924 (according to most reliable sources), to Dora and LeRoy Lowery, a teacher and a small businessman, respectively. His childhood experiences included confrontations with abusive police officers, the Ku Klux Klan, and prejudiced neighbors. These experiences helped shape his social conscience. Lowery graduated from high school in 1939 and was educated at several colleges, including Knoxville College in Tennessee, Wayne State University in Michigan, Payne College and Theological Seminary in Ohio, and the Chicago Ecumenical Institute. After graduating from seminary in 1950, he was ordained as a Methodist minister and received his first assignment, which took him to Mobile, Alabama. From 1952 to 1961 Lowery was pastor of Warren Street United Methodist Church (UMC) in Mobile.
Lowery and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama
In 1955, in Alabama's capital, Montgomery, a black woman named Rosa Parks sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott when she refused to relinquish her bus seat to a white man. Inspired by the progress in Montgomery, Lowery led a successful drive against the segregated bus system in Mobile. Hoping to build upon these victories, Lowery and other black southern ministers met in Atlanta at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Their aim was to form an organization that would supply the civil rights movement with sustaining leadership. The result was the creation of the SCLC, of which Lowery was elected vice president.
Under the leadership of King and Lowery, the SCLC marched toward the goal of equality for American blacks. Lowery's commitment to achieving this goal, however, was tested. In 1959 Lowery, Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, and Solomon Seay were sued for libel by the state of Alabama. Though innocent, the four ministers were found guilty and ordered to pay $3 million. Much of Lowery's personal property was seized. This ruling was later reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Along with fellow activists Lowery was subjected to violence from the police and militia—notably, during the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery—and was imprisoned many times.
From 1986 until his retirement in 1992, Lowery was pastor of Cascade United Methodist Church in Atlanta. During his tenure Cascade's membership grew by 1,000, church funds increased to $1 million, and the church purchased land and began building a new facility. He also cochaired the 1990 visit to Atlanta of Nelson Mandela, leader of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa; spearheaded the construction of 240 low- and moderate-income housing units; and served as a board member of MARTA, Atlanta's public transportation system, for more than two decades.
Lowery has received much recognition for his accomplishments. In 2001 Atlanta's Clark Atlanta University established the Joseph E. Lowery Institute for Justice and Human Rights. Twice he has been named Atlanta's Citizen of the Year. He has received several honorary doctorates, the NAACP Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and dozens of other humanitarian awards. He is still involved in the battle for equality and will be remembered for his continued involvement in the civil rights movement.
In January 2009 Lowery delivered the benediction for the inaugural ceremony of U.S. president Barack Obama.
David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 1955-1968 (New York: William Morrow, 1986).
Anthony Lewis, Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment (New York: Random House, 1991).
W. Michael Kirkland, Bainbridge College
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