Joseph Lowery, Civil Rights Icon and Lieutenant of Martin Luther King Jr., Dies at 98

The NAACP affectionately nicknamed him “The Dean of the Civil Rights Movement.”
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The NAACP affectionately nicknamed him “The Dean of the Civil Rights Movement.”

Rev. Joseph Echols Lowery, a Lieutenant to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., reportedly died of natural causes at his Atlanta home Friday. He was 98.

Lowery was one of the most beloved leaders of the civil rights movement, and co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Dr. King. Lowery would be a driving force within the organization for more than half a century.

The NAACP affectionately nicknamed him “The Dean of the Civil Rights Movement.”

Born in Huntsville, Alabama on October 6th, 1921, Lowery would have an encounter with a white police officer at his father’s candy store 11 years later that changed the course of his life.

"A big white policeman was coming in, and he punched me in the stomach with his nightstick," he said in a 2001 interview with The Atlanta Journal Constitution. "He said, 'Get back n*****. Don't you see a white man coming in the door?'"

Lowery ran home to get a gun, but his father stopped him. 

“I went home and looked for my father’s pearl-handled .32. I got it and was gonna look for that cop. “I had never seen my father at home during the day, except on Sundays,” Lowery said. “I don’t know why he came home that day. But I am glad he did.”

He said the incident was what motivated him to dedicate his life to fighting for civil rights. 

After graduating from Paine College, Lowery became an ordained Methodist minister, before organizing peaceful marches in Selma and Birmingham.

In 1950, he married Evelyn Gibson, who was also a civil rights leader. The pair had three daughters, and Lowery had two sons from a previous marriage.

Rev. Lowery helped lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and led the Alabama Civic Affairs Association, which helped desegregate the state’s buses and public places.

Lowery also dedicated himself to fighting for LGBTQ rights, including same-sex marriage.

His words at Coretta Scott King’s 2006 funeral were met with a standing ovation, when he referenced the Iraq war in front of four U.S. presidents, including then President George W. Bush.

“We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over there," he said. "But Coretta knew and we know that there are weapons of misdirection right down here. Millions without health insurance. Poverty abounds. For war billions more but no more for the poor!”

Lowery got to see part of his dream realized— when he spoke at President Barack Obama’s January, 2009 inauguration borrowing from Big Bill Broonzy’s “Black, Brown and White.”:

“Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get [in] 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. Let all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen! Say Amen! And Amen!”

Months later, President Obama awarded Lowery with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

At a roast for his 85th birthday, Lowery revealed why he has continued to work.  “I can’t [retire] because Martin is gone. Ralph [Abernathy] is gone. Hosea [Williams] is gone. I’m still here. God kept me here because I have been speaking the truth. Because I stand up against war and racism.”

The King Center remembered Rev. Lowery Sunday, by tweeting his own words. 

"I’ve never felt your ministry should be totally devoted to making a heavenly home. I thought it should also be devoted to making your home here heavenly.”