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Remembering Civil Rights Icon Joseph Lowery

Updated: Aug 21, 2023

Beloved promoter of justice dies at age 98

Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery, one of America’s longest and most esteemed civil rights leaders, died March 27 at the age of 98. Photo courtesy Joseph and Evelyn Lowery Institute for Justice & Human Rights.

One of America’s longest and most esteemed civil rights leaders, Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery, died Friday, March 27, making his transition peacefully at home, surrounded by his daughters. He was 98.

Hailed as the "Dean of the Civil Rights Movement" upon his receipt of the NAACP's Lifetime Achievement Award, Dr. Lowery had assumed and executed a broad and diverse series of roles over the span of his nine decades: Leader, pastor, servant, father, husband, freedom fighter and advocate.

Born in Huntsville, Ala., on Oct. 6, 1921, his legacy of service and struggle was long and rich. His genesis as a civil rights advocate dates to the early 1950s, when he headed the Alabama Civic Affairs Association, which led the movement to desegregate buses and public accommodations. In 1957, with friend and colleague Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he was a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

He served the SCLC as Vice President (1957-1967), Chairman of the Board (1967-1977), and as President and Chief Executive Officer (1977-1998). To continue his legacy and promote non-violent advocacy among future generations, the Joseph E. Lowery Institute for Justice & Human Rights was founded in 2002 at Clark Atlanta University. The Institute was later renamed to include and honor Dr. Evelyn Lowery, his beloved partner in marriage and the movement for 67 years.

Calling on his over 40 years as 'pastor' and in his inimitable style, Dr. Lowery delivered the benediction on the occasion of President Barack Obama's inauguration as the 44th President of the United States in 2009. Later that year, President Obama awarded him the nation's highest civilian honor, The Presidential Medal of Freedom, in recognition of his lifelong commitment to the nonviolent struggle for the causes of justice, human rights, economic equality, voting rights, peace and human dignity.

“He was a giant who let so many of us stand on his shoulders,” President Obama said, in a statement reacting to his passing.

“What a joy it was to watch him pray and preach,” Obama said. “I had that privilege in Selma; at my first inauguration; and on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, where I took heart in him saying, `We ain’t going back. 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.’

“Joseph Lowery 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,” Obama said.


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