Joseph Lowery Biography

Civil Rights Activist, Minister (1921–)
Civil rights leader, social activist and minister Joseph Lowery has fought against prejudice and discrimination against African-Americans for more than 50 years.


Joseph Lowery was born on October 6, 1921, in Huntsville, Alabama. In 1952, he became pastor for the Warren Street United Methodist Church in Mobile. There, he helped launch a drive to end discrimination in Mobile. In 1957, Lowery helped form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and in 1968, he became the SCLC's chairman. After retiring, he continued to fight against social injustice.

Early Life

Born Joseph Echols Lowery on October 6, 1921, (some sources say 1924) in Huntsville, Alabama. For more than 50 years, Reverend Joseph Lowery has fought against prejudice and discrimination on behalf of the African-American community. He earned himself the nickname the "dean of the civil rights movement."

Lowery, the son of a teacher and a businessman, grew up in the segregated South. He knew firsthand the hardships and cruelty that many African-Americans experienced. At the age of 12, Lowery was beaten by a white police officer after he accidentally bumped into the law enforcement official. He graduated from high school in 1939 and then studied at several colleges, including Wayne State University and Knoxville College. After completing a bachelor's degree at Paine College in Augusta, Georgia, Lowery followed a spiritual calling. He graduated from the Chicago Ecumenical Institute in 1950 with a doctorate in divinity.

Civil Rights Career

An ordained Methodist minister, Lowery returned to Alabama in 1952 to serve as pastor for the Warren Street United Methodist Church in Mobile. There, he became active in the emerging civil rights movement. Inspired by the resistance shown regarding the segregated busing system in Montgomery, Lowery helped launch a drive to end the same discriminatory practices in Mobile.

In 1957, Lowery worked with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph David Abernathy, and others to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He became the organization's vice president and helped the group with its efforts to fight for equality through nonviolent actions. Lowery stayed true to his convictions at a great personal cost at times.

He and several members of the SCLC were sued for libel by a Montgomery commissioner because of a 1960 newspaper ad that made critiques of the city's police department. Lowery's assets were seized when the court ruled against the SCLC members. They appealed the case, which was finally overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1964.

Lowery moved to Birmingham, Alabama, in 1964, becoming the pastor for St. Paul's Church. In addition to delivering sermons and speaking out about civil rights, he participated in numerous protests and demonstrations, including the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery. These marches were part of a campaign for voters rights and a response to the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a civil rights protestor, by an Alabama state trooper.

In 1968, the same year that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Lowery took over as pastor at the Central Church in Atlanta. He also became the chairman of the SCLC around this time, serving as one of the organization's more moderate voices. In 1977, Lowery won the presidency of the SCLC over more radical factions. He helped revitalize the organization, bringing in new members and focusing on such pressing issues in the African-American community as police brutality and human rights.

Lowery changed churches in the mid-1980s, but he chose to remain in Atlanta. As the pastor of the Cascade United Methodist Church, he helped increase the size of the congregation and improve its financial situation. Lowery remained politically and socially active, campaigning against South Africa's practice of apartheid.

Even after his retirement in 1992, Lowery continued to fight against social injustice and for the rights of others. He led an effort to remove the Confederate battle flag from the Georgia state flag and helped the city of Atlanta prepare for 1996 Olympics.

In recent years, Lowery received a lot of media attention for his role in the inauguration of Barack Obama, the nation's first African-American president, in 2009. Obama selected Lowery to deliver the benediction at the event. In his speech, Lowery called for the president and the rest of the nation "to work for that day ... when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream."

Lowery has received numerous accolades for his work, including Ebony magazine's Black Achievement Award. Clark Atlanta University established the Joseph E. Lowery Institute for Justice and Human Rights in his honor. Lowery and his wife Evelyn have three adult children, Yvonne, Karen and Cheryl.

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