Civil rights icon and one of Atlanta’s most revered citizens, Rev. Joseph Lowery, passes at age 98.
In the late 1980s, Rev. Lowery famously preached a sermon titled, “Everything Has Changed and Nothing Has Changed.” In the sermon, he called out the U.S. for making cosmetic changes such as putting Black faces in formerly White places, while the essence of the society that maintained Jim Crow both dejure and de facto, had not been transformed.
The civil rights icon had participated in the now-famous March on Washington in 1963 that brought the issue of civil rights to the doorstep of the nation’s capital.
Lowery and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. founded one of the leading civil rights organizations, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference ( SCLC), in 1957. Lowery was the organization’s first vice president and King its first president.
Lowery headed the organization from 1977 to 1997. The SCLC was instrumental, along with others—in what was then known as the Freedom Movement—in getting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed and the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965.
“We ain’t going back,” Rev. Lowery said responding to efforts to scale back gains made by Blacks in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. “We’ve come too far, marched too long, prayed too hard, wept too bitterly, bled too profusely and died too young, to let anybody turn back the clock on our journey to justice,” he proclaimed in 2013 during his speech at the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington.
Born Joseph Echols Lowery in Huntsville, Alabama, in 1921, he and his family experienced first-hand the limitations brought on by Jim Crow.
Lowery was known as a fiery preacher; he pastored two of Atlanta’s more prestigious Black Methodist churches before retiring from the pastorate of Cascade Methodist Church in 1992.
He was often ahead of most civil rights advocates on issues of human rights. He spoke out against South African Apartheid, the US war in Iraq and on behalf of Palestinian rights. He was opposed to capital punishment. He advocated for immigrant rights and was an early supporter of LBGTQ rights. And he spoke out against police violence.
In fact, it was an encounter with a White cop in which he was hit in the stomach with a police baton that motivated him to fight for Black rights.
In his later years, he stood up for worker’s rights and helped Black workers secure employment and promotions with corporations based in Georgia, which had not dealt fairly with Blacks including at the Publix Supermarkets and Shoney’s restaurant.
He saw the limits of mass incarceration and viewed it as the last facet in keeping Blacks oppressed.
Lowery was not known for biting his tongue, as he displayed at the funeral of MLK’s widow and human and civil rights leader Coretta Scott King in 2006. Scott King once said Lowery had “led more marches and been in the trenches more than anyone since Martin.”
“We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over there, but Coretta knew, and we know that there are weapons of misdirection right down here,” Lowery said with President George Bush and many in the US ruling class looking on. “Millions without health insurance. Poverty abounds. For war, billions more, but no more for the poor.”
Responding to critics who said his remarks were inappropriate and ill-timed, he said, “Many White people thought that was inappropriate in the church. But for us, the church is where we take our hurt, pain, hope and aspirations and our belief for a better day.”
Lowery was preceded in death by his wife Evelyn Lowery. They had three daughters, Yvonne, Karen and Cheryl, and 12 grandchildren.
When asked in a 2008 interview about his efforts as SCLC leader, he said, “I did the best I could. We tried to keep the flame burning, to keep the moral tone of the movement alive, to cry out for the moral imperatives of our faith.
“We continued to be the agitating force in the country. History will have to judge what that meant.”