Remembering the “Dean of the Civil Rights Movement”

By March 30, 2020Commentaries/Opinions
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., left, meets with the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, center, and the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker at First African Baptist Church in Richmond, Va., for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference convention on Sept. 25, 1963.

By Ellen McGirt —

All movements have moments. When it comes to voting rights, Reverend Joseph Echols Lowery was there for most of them.

The man who was known as the “Dean of the Civil Rights Movement” died peacefully at home last Friday. He was 98.

Lowery was a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with the Rev. Martin Luther King, and a co-creator of the bus boycott that would make Rosa Parks famous in 1955.

He was also the person tapped to bring a list of demands for full citizenship via voting rights to the desk of Alabama’s governor George Wallace in 1965. In the thankfully now-famous story of the 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, he did just that.

“Born and raised in Jim Crow Alabama, preaching in his blood, the Rev. Joseph Lowery is a giant of the Moses generation of civil rights leaders,” President Barack Obama said when he awarded Lowery the Medal of Freedom in 2009. “It was just King, Lowery and a few others, huddled in Montgomery, who laid the groundwork for the bus boycott and the movement that was to follow.”

While his family asked for privacy, Lowery was celebrated by many at home with words of online praise.

“A towering figure and icon has left us. Rest in Power,” tweeted NAACP Legal Defense Fund president Sherrilyn Ifill.

Reverend Bernice King, CEO of the King Center in Atlanta, reminded us that the work was always a family business. “It’s hard to imagine a world or an Atlanta without Reverend #JosephLowery,” she tweeted. “I’m grateful for a life well-lived and for its influence on mine. I’ll miss you, Uncle Joe. You finally made it up to see Aunt Evelyn again.”

For more extraordinary Lowery moments, you can read his essay rich with details about the march to Montgomery here, and watch his brilliant benediction at Barack Obama’s inauguration here.

But I’ll leave you today with a quote from his brief remarks at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington from August 23, 2013. The shadow of Jim Crow, particularly with regard to voting rights, loomed large then, as it does now.

“Fired up?” he called.

“Ready to go,” the crowd responded.

And then he laid it bare:

“We join in prayer for a nation that strangely enough continues to seek to deny rights and restrict freedom in the right to vote. We come today fifty years later, it’s even stranger that there are men and forces who still seek to restrict our vote and deny our full participation. Well, we come here to Washington to say, we ain’t going back. 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.”


Video

The Reverend Joseph Lowery, leader in the civil rights movement and third president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., spoke at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

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About IBW21

IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to building the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. to work for the social, political, economic and cultural upliftment, the development of the global Black community and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.