Rev. Joseph Lowery with Rosa Parks (Library of Congress)
Against all odds, a movement for racial justice took hold in mid-20th-century America, emerging from within the racially-heated South, and drawing sustenance from a rich-array of Black religious sources. A cadre of activist Black clergypersons were among the central figures in this historic social movement, with organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) epitomizing the promise of a socially-mobilized Black clergy sector.
Although SCLC had its period of prominence, the ebb and flow of its organizational influence, as movement days gave way to post-movement organizational uncertainties, symbolizes a more general expansion and contraction of Black clergy public influence from the mid- to latter-20th century. Although embodiments of a resistance politics may have been transitory, the spirit of that resistance proved larger than its forms, carried from one place or time to another by those consecrated to its cause.
Many Black clergy achieved public prominence during the Civil Rights Movement, but few with greater impact or clearer consecration to the cause of resistance than Joseph E. Lowery, who passed away on March 27, 2020 at the age of 98. Lowery was an esteemed activist pastor whose theological calling, social convictions, and leadership capital positioned him among the foremost standard bearers of the “prophetic” Black Christianity so integral to the Civil Rights Movement. Furthermore, the length of his public leadership career, extending across roughly seven decades and many tactical and ideological shifts within American public life, is suggestive of his resilient and durable leadership and of his inextinguishable prophetic fire.
Lowery, a co-founder of SCLC and one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s closest associates, was one of the chief architects of the creative protest dynamics that propelled the movement. Seven years older than King, Lowery began pastoring a Methodist congregation in Mobile, Alabama in 1952 and also served as president of the Alabama Civic Affairs Association, which helped desegregate public transportation in Mobile and provided financial support for the Montgomery bus boycott. Upon the founding of SCLC in 1957, Lowery was designated as vice-president and held that position until being named SCLC board chairman in 1967.
In 1977, Lowery succeeded Ralph Abernathy to become the third president of SCLC, taking-over as SCLC point-person almost ten years after the death of King, and at a time of intensive and extensive Black leadership contestation. Challenges to SCLC-style “jeremiadic” resistance politics had escalated throughout the late-1960s and early-1970s, as Black nationalists, womanists, and social pragmatists promoted alternative messaging and methods they deemed better-suited to the next phases of the Black freedom struggle. The outsider-protest paradigm also seemed increasingly out-of-step with new opportunities for social participation, which by the late-1970s had led to a noticeable expansion of Black professionals, including governmental officials, public intellectuals, business leaders, and others who could lay claim to and deploy system resources.
The expansions within Black professional sectors resulted not only from a cultivation of newly-emerging Black talent, but also from a migration of experienced movement leaders and activists into professional realms considered potentially more impactful, prestigious, or rewarding. Historian Charles Marsh views that migration as understandable, but regrettable, in that it depleted the ranks of seasoned activists that could have sustained a Black movement politics. Referring to a post-movement decline of activism in poor neighborhoods and communities, Marsh writes: “as members of a generation of creative and skilled black (and white) activists moved out of poor communities and into networks of political influence, non-profit work, cultural and academic leadership, and corporate boardrooms, no one took their place in the freedom houses and community centers.” The spirit of radical resistance that had animated Black Christian resistance politics during the movement was giving way (as movement momentum often does) to noticeably more conventional pursuits.
Black professionalization contributed to another dynamic that ran counter to the trajectories of Black Christian resistance politics. The authority conferred upon activist Black clergy during the Civil Rights Movement by strategic deployment of religious organizational and leadership resources was rapidly dissipating in the face of unleashed secularizing instincts and tendencies among emergent Black professional sectors. Professionalism’s potential departures from a religious metrics of progress and effectiveness weakened the need and the basis for a leading role by the religious sector in defining and executing a Black agenda that might be considered broad-based. That fact that “broad-based” in this instance meant tracking largely in social mainstream directions, Black religion that was congenial to mainstream American objectives could prove useful to Black professionalization, but a Black religion oriented toward prophetic resistance could prove a liability.
Despite the eroded strength and influence of SCLC prophetic activism, Lowery was undeterred in his commitment to being a force of resistance and locating alongside the socially marginalized and oppressed. In February 1982, during a U.S. presidency especially unreceptive to critiques of systemic injustice, SCLC launched a campaign to bring attention to persistently fierce Black economic inequalities and attacks on Black voting rights. In direct response to the sentencing of two Black women community organizers — Maggie Bozeman and Julia Wilder, convicted of voter fraud for assisting illiterate Black voters in Carrollton, Alabama with the signing of their ballots — Lowery organized a 160 mile march from Carrollton to Montgomery. This march (considered to be “the longest march in civil rights history”) was joined at points along the way by numerous prominent leaders, including Martin Luther King, Sr., Coretta Scott King, Atlanta mayor Andrew Young, Birmingham mayor Richard Arrington, Angela Davis, and Congressman Walter Fauntroy, and by Black and white activists from across the Southeast and Midwest. Also, public hearings on voting rights were held along the route in Selma and Greensboro, Alabama, with the testimony generated from those hearings delivered to the Congressional Black Caucus and Senator Ted Kennedy who entered the testimony into the U.S. congressional record.
The Carrollton-Montgomery march was followed by a pilgrimage from Tuskegee, Alabama to Washington, DC, beginning in early-April and concluding in Washington early-June. Headed by Lowery and Operation PUSH director Jesse Jackson, the two-month pilgrimage across five states generated voter registration drives and rallies to increase pressure on Congress to support an extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The pilgrimage was to conclude in Washington with the erecting of a Tent City near the White house (reminiscent of 1968 Poor People’s March), but Congress approved the voting rights extension just prior to the Washington arrival of the protesters.1
This high-profile 1982 mobilization revitalized SCLC’s reputation as a leading champion of voting rights and anti-poverty advocacy, while propelling Lowery toward additional dimensions of national leadership and influence. For example, 1982 was also the year Lowery became president of the National Black Leadership Forum, a consortium of approximately 20 civil rights and political advocacy organizations founded several years earlier to collectively advance a progressive Black public policy agenda. As leader of this broad consortium, and in conjunction with two additional Black leadership networks (the Black Leadership Coalition and the National Black Leadership Roundtable), Lowery was instrumental in composing a set of policy proposals in early 1984 designated as “The People’s Platform.” The Platform, designed to influence policy discussions during the 1984 election season, strongly emphasized anti-poverty and community economic development measures including job training programs and small business development.2 In the midst of the early-1980s pushback against anti-poverty governmental safety nets and economic empowerment strategies, Lowery was among the few national leaders willing to place his leadership capital behind systemic and structural critiques that challenged an increasing national policy emphasis on socially exclusionary fiscal austerity ploys and meritocratic notions.
As the nation was reiterating its historical unwillingness to assist in the empowerment of its own socially-marginalized populations (especially if they were people of color), it also was renewing its well-established antagonisms toward Global South populations around the world who dared to rise-up against oppression. Lowery’s SCLC presidency had a strong foreign policy orientation almost from the outset, with his active defense of Andrew Young’s 1979 decision while U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations to hold unauthorized talks with the Palestinian Liberation Organization. After Young was fired by U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance for these actions, Lowery facilitated SCLC discussions with various Jewish and Palestinian leaders to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, including PLO President Yasser Arafat, PLO Observer to the UN Zehdi Labib Terzi, Israeli representative to the UN Yehuda Blum, and leaders from the American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Committee, and Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.3 When questioned by Jewish leaders about SCLC’s ongoing meetings with PLO representatives, Lowery replied: “We are making no apologies. Let’s stop the killings while we work out the problems … We have not endorsed the PLO. We have endorsed justice.” SCLC received criticism from Jewish leaders and lost Jewish support, but Lowery stood by the necessity of the PLO being included in policy discussions pertaining to the regional conflict.
By the early-1980s, the U.S. was deeply involved in efforts to counter liberation struggles in Central America, the Caribbean, and South Africa, and Lowery was strongly critical of the moral misalignments of these U.S. foreign policy initiatives. Lowery opposed the U.S.’s 1983 invasion of Grenada and the “Cold War” premises of its targeting of Grenada’s leftist regime, referring to the invasion as “premature and opportunistic” and “probably illegal and immoral.” U.S. Cold War thinking was also at work in its covert 1980s military operations against the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. In responding to this, Lowery led delegations of high profile activists and Congressional representatives to Nicaragua, widely publicizing facts gathered during these visits, and conveying findings and assessments to governmental officials in Washington.4 Lowery was also highly critical of the Reagan Administration’s “Constructive Engagement” policy in South Africa, another Cold War policy construct, which lent support to the apartheid government’s efforts to subdue anti-apartheid forces within South Africa. When U.S. human rights and civil rights leaders rose up in 1984 in solidarity with South African freedom fighters and launched a “Free South Africa Movement,” Lowery was one of the very first in what would be thousands of persons to be arrested in subsequent months for protesting in front of the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C. The protests led to the passing of the 1985 Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which was signed into law only after Congress overrode Reagan’s veto of the bill.
In Lowery’s domestic and foreign policy activism, the balance-of-power did not favor successful outcomes for the causes he championed, but whether or not the social changes were achieved, he spoke truth to power. Martin Luther King, Jr. once stated: “…there’re times when you must take a stand that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but you must do it because it is right.”5
Lowery stood for right even when it was unsafe, impolitic, and unpopular to do so. Whether standing with a few people or thousands, whether engaging with persons at the social margins or in the halls of power, Lowery stood up and spoke out. He also stayed the course, throughout 40 years of SCLC activism, and for more than 20 additional years after his 1997 SCLC retirement.
In a 2008 interview he was asked about his sustained involvement in the social justice movement, and his response was: ”I never left. … I’m a pastor, a preacher, and it was part of my ministry. … I never partitioned my witness. I felt called to not only help people make heaven their home, but to make their home here heavenly. That included justice.”
A pursuit of justice, no matter the odds, was a spirit that defined SCLC and the arc of Lowery’s SCLC involvements, and it is a spirit that lives on, blowing from place to place and generation to generation.
Lowery remarked in the above-cited 2008 interview: “I think heaven blesses justice.” Indeed, there is a heavenly quality to justice — and to its champions whose life journeys prove a blessing to others. Joseph Lowery was just such a champion, and leaves behind a lasting witness.
- AP National Desk, “Civil Rights Leaders Plan New Ten City Near White House,” The New York Times, June 8, 1982.
- Francesta Farmer, “The People’s Platform,” in “Campaign 84: The Harvard Debates,“ Institute of Politics: John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, 1983-1984.
- Karin Stanford, Beyond the Boundaries, 57; and Carla Hall, “The Fervent Preacher and the Palestinians,” Washington Post, September 24, 1979.
- Julie Williams Johnson, “SCLC Against Latin Aid,” Black Enterprise Magazine, April 1984, 22; Ernie Suggs, “Remembering the Rev. Joseph Lowery—A Civil Rights Icon, 1921-2020,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, March 28, 2020.
- Martin Luther King, Jr., “America’s Chief Moral Dilemma,” Berkeley: UC Berkeley, May 17, 1967
R. Drew Smith is a political scientist, serving as a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary where he teaches on religion and public life and urban ministry studies. For ten years he has been Co-Convener of the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race, a transnational network of scholars, religious leaders, and activists concerned with intersections of religion, race, class, and social identity. He has published widely on religion and public life, including nine edited or co-edited books, four edited journal collections, and a forthcoming monograph on Black clergy activism. He has also published more than 70 articles and essays in academic journals and mass media platforms. He can be followed on Twitter: @RDrewSmith1.