Lowery, Joseph E. 1924–

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Joseph E. Lowery 1924

Clergyman and civil rights leader

At a Glance

King Held Lowery in High Regard

Brought Religious Zeal to His Work


Joseph E. Lowery was at Martin Luther King, Jr.s side from the early days of the civil rights movement in the South, and he carries that work on still. Economic justice has been the focus of Lowerys energy, and he has pursued his vision from the pulpit and from the offices of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (the SCLC).

President of the SCLC since 1977, Lowery was a member since he helped found it in 1957, when King was elected its first president and Lowery its vice-president. Initially called the Southern Negro Leaders Conference, then the Southern Leadership Conference, and finally the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, it came into being as a result of the euphoric success of the Montgomery bus boycott. The boycott started when Rosa Parks, a black woman, refused to yield her seat on a segregated bus on December 1, 1955. It ended a year later when the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregation on buses was unconstitutional.

The civil rights workers who had tirelessly managed the boycott felt buoyedafter all, since the Supreme Court had decided against school segregation in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case the year before, then it seemed at last that change was in the air. In the wake of the Brown case, 60 percent of the black population had cast its vote to elect President Dwight D. Eisenhower for a second term, in expectation of more political gains. Now with segregation on buses struck down, the boycott organizers, who operated as the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), and the other black preachers who had supported them, wanted to extend the effects of this new political power. They established the SCLC as a regional organization that would work for civil rights through the black churches throughout the South.

The success of the boycott created celebrities of some MIA leaders, notably King, who was featured on the cover of Time magazine in January, 1957 (with an approving inside feature, as Adam Fairclough observed in his book To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr.). There was some jealousy about how the press seemed to focus exclusively on King and disregard the other performersthe Pittsburgh Courier Magazine claimed jealousy among Negro leaders [was]

At a Glance

Born October 6, 1924, in Huntsville, AL; son of a mortician; married Evelyn Gibson; children: Yvonne, Karen, Cheryl. Education: Attended Knoxville College, Alabama A & M College, Paine College and Paine Theological Seminary, Garrett Theological Seminary, and Chicago Ecumenical Institute. Has A.B. and B.D. degrees.

Ordained to ministry of United Methodist (UM) Church; pastor of churches in Mobile, AL, 1952-61, and Birmingham, AL, 1964-68; pastor in Atlanta, GA, of Central UM Church, 1968-86, and Cascade UM Church, 1986. Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Atlanta, co-founder, vice-president, 1957-67, chairman of national board of directors, 1967-77, national president, 1977. Served as administrative assistant to Bishop Golden of the UM Church, Nashville, TN, 1961-64. Co-chairman of 20th Anniversary March on Washington, 1983.

Awards: Honorary degrees from Clark College, 1975, Morehouse College, Miles College, Dillard University, and Atlanta University; Martin Luther King, Jr., Nonviolent Peace Prize from Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change, 1990; Martin Luther King, Jr., Medal for Outstanding Professional Service in the field of civil and human rights from George Washington University, 1990; numerous others.

Addresses: Office Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 334 Auburn Ave. N.E., Atlanta, GA 30303.

so thick it [could] be cut with a knife. Lowery, himself a man in his twenties, was one of the more soft-spoken SCLC top staffers in a pool known for conflicting egos. David J. Garrow wrote about these early days of the SCLC in his book Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference: Outsiders often thought those principals arrogant beyond belief. King seemed to assemble every egocentric character in America. Garrow also recorded the observation of Samuel Williams: You had to have ego to stay in the movement. Aint no money out there, aint no nothing.

That money the new organization brought in often went to pay lawyers to get SCLC staff members out of the troubles the activism itself attracted. In 1959 Lowery and three other staffers were sued for libel by the commissioners of Montgomery, Alabama, because their names appeared on an ad run in the New York Times that aimed to raise money for a King defense fund. Also, King had been arrested on charges of perjury for swearing falsely to the accuracy of his 1956 and 1958 Alabama tax returns.

Fairclough noted in To Redeem the Soul of America that the libel case dragged on for yearsit had to be fought all the way to the Supreme Courtand involved no fewer than eighteen lawyers on the SCLCs side. The $3 million suit, Sullivan v. New York Times, was more than simply a legal inconvenience to Lowery and the others, however, for it meant the confiscation of property that took more than ten years to get back.

King Held Lowery in High Regard

King regarded Lowery very highly and often sought out his counsel, as King biographers have noted. But Lowerys SCLC duties did not occupy all of his time. He had been pastor of the Warren Street Church in Mobile, Alabama, from 1952 to 1961, and then served as administrative assistant to United Methodist (UM) Bishop Golden for three years, which gave him an opportunity to attend his churchs world council held in London. He took over as pastor of St. Pauls Church in Birmingham, Alabama, from 1964 to 1968, and then moved to Atlanta, Georgia. There Lowery became pastor for 18 years of Central Church, Atlantas oldest and largest predominantly black UM church; 2,000 people joined Central under his leadership. Lowery also managed to implement his vision of economic justice with the building of Central Methodist Gardens, a 240-unit housing complex for low- and moderate-income families.

Since 1986 he has been pastor of Atlantas Cascade Church, which has grown to a membership of 2,500. Though many of the civil rights activists were Baptist ministers, Lowery pointed out to CBB that denomination was no barrier in the movement.

Brought Religious Zeal to His Work

Whether he is campaigning for voting rights, fighting the dumping of toxic wastes in predominantly black communities, meeting with heads of state or political leaders, or addressing the basic economic problems of young black people, Lowery has always regarded his work with religious zeal. In all of his activities he stays close to the spiritual source of his strength, a vision he held with Martin Luther King, Jr. Lowery told Ebony magazine:

Among the many memories [of King] I cherish are the discussions we shared about the nature of Christian ministry, discussions precipitated by criticism from those who claim preachers ought to deal only with saving souls and not with civil rights. Martin saw the role of a minister as advocate, interpreter and servant. Human rights and the movement were not peripheral or tangential aspects of ministry for us, but represented commitment to the kingdom of God which we interpreted as a kingdom of justice, equity and peace.

After more than 30 years of civil rights work, Lowery sees no reason to rest on his laurels. As Ebony recounted in 1990, Much has been said and written about the mounting problems that confront young people as they face the 90s. These problems, almost everyone agrees, are distinctly differentand frequently more complexthan those that confronted young people only a few decades ago. This has raised the question whether the major civil rights organizations, which contributed so much toward advancing the cause of Black liberation in the past, have had to change their traditional agendas in order to maintain their effectiveness as catalysts for nonviolent social change in the present and foreseeable future. Drugs, poverty, and violence are major crises that Lowery and the SCLC have developed programs for, notably Liberation Lifestyles. Lowery explained to Ebony, We believe that much of our problem is that we are worshipping the material over the spiritual. That is why we are killing each other and that is why people are expendable, as long as the goal is money.

Lowery sees no conflict between criticizing the pursuit of the dollar and working for economic justice, and to this aim the SCLC has several projects, including Operation Breadbasket and a $90 million agreement with Shoneys Inc., to work with Black colleges, restaurants and hotels. We have gotten them to commit to a joint venture program with Black businesses and to a franchise program where they are going to help finance franchises as well as training people to work. As Lowery insisted in Ebony magazine, the SCLC is as relevant as it ever was: It is extremely vital to our perspective, our sensitivity, our commitment, our love of ourselves, our turning to each other, our sense of worth, and our determination to determine our own future.



Branch, Taylor, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963, Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Fairclough, Adam, To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr., University of Georgia Press, 1987.

Garrow, David J., Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Morrow, 1986.

Hampton, Henry and Steve Fayer, with Sarah Flynn, Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s, Bantam, 1990.

Kluger, Richard, Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black Americas Struggle for Equality, Vintage Books, 1977.

Williams, Juan, Eyes on the Prize: Americas Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965, Viking, 1987.


Ebony, February 1984; August 1985; August 1990.

Jet, October 22, 1959; April 2, 1981; April 26, 1982; June 20, 1983; January 15, 1990.

New York Times, March 29, 1960; August 5, 1991.

Pittsburgh Courier Magazine, December 19, 1959.

CBB spoke with Joseph Lowery by phone at his office in Atlanta, GA, on November 25, 1991.

Fran Locher Freiman