Known as the “dean of the civil rights movement,” Joseph E. Lowery (1921-2020) was at the forefront in the struggle for desegregation and voting rights in the American South during the 1950s and 1960s. Lowery helped establish the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957 and served as president from 1977 to 1997. He continued to mobilize civil rights protests in the 1970s and 1980s and was instrumental in rousing the political support that bolstered the careers of such figures as Birmingham mayor Richard Arrington Jr. and Georgia senator and Southern Poverty Law Center co-founder Julian Bond.
Lowery was born in Huntsville, Madison County, on October 6, 1921, to LeRoy Lowery, who managed a pool hall and a general store, and Dora Fackler, a part-time teacher. He had one sister. Lowery would later recall that the city’s small black population, largely employed at the local mill, was often terrorized by the Ku Klux Klan. When he was 14, Lowery was beaten outside of his father’s store by a police officer for not stepping aside to allow a white man to enter. His father complained to city officials to no effect. In 1928, Joseph began his education in the school where his mother taught. In 1936, he entered ninth grade at the laboratory school on the campus of State Agricultural and Mechanical Institute for Negroes (now Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University, AAMU), where his economics and civics teacher, Samuel William, helped shape his passion for economic and social justice. Lowery graduated in 1939 and enrolled in Knoxville College in Knoxville, Tennessee, that fall to study sociology. Lowery returned to Huntsville to attend AAMU for his sophomore year, but in 1941 transferred for his junior year to Paine College in Augusta, Georgia. Lowery made good grades and pledged to the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and graduated with a bachelor of arts in sociology in 1943.
Lowery next took a position as editor of the Birmingham Informer weekly newspaper, which was managed by a friend of LeRoy Lowery. The newspaper highlighted many of the acts of injustice against African Americans in Birmingham, and this exposure motivated Echols to become a minister. He received his bachelor’s in divinity from Payne Theological Seminary in Wilberforce, Ohio, in 1944, and his doctorate from the Chicago Ecumenical Institute in 1950 while continuing his work at the newspaper in Birmingham. In April 1948, Echols married Evelyn Gibson, who would become an important civil rights leader in her own right. The couple would have three daughters. Lowery graduated with a bachelor of divinity degree from the seminary in 1950 and then took a position as a teacher and pastor in Alexander City, Tallapoosa County. In 1952, Lowery was assigned to the Warren Street United Methodist Church in Mobile, where he soon became immersed in civil rights activities. Racial strife was not as severe in Mobile as it was in Montgomery and Birmingham at this time because Mobile’s white city commissioner, Joseph Langan, was sympathetic to the interests of the city’s African American residents and worked with groups like the Mobile chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), led by John LeFlore, to foster interracial cooperation. Lowery hosted NAACP meetings at his church and worked with LeFlore to develop civil rights organizations such as the Alabama Civil Affairs Association.
Lowery became a leader in Interdenominational Ministerial Alliances in Alexander City and Mobile, an organization of black ministers from various denominations working to bring about civil rights reform. These leaders, including Lowery, then developed an informal relationship with other leaders across the South, most importantly with Martin Luther King Jr. in Montgomery and Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmingham. Lowery attended the initial December 1955 mass meetings of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) in the wake of Rosa Parks‘s arrest and met other pastors who were leading the local desegregation movement in Montgomery, including Ralph D. Abernathy. Lowery’s interaction with these MIA leaders built a network that, in turn, supported him in his efforts to desegregate Mobile’s buses in 1956. When Alabama outlawed the NAACP in June 1956, the ministers adopted the NAACP’s role of discussing activities in local movements and formalizing contact among them along, with coordinating protests at the state level.
In January 1957, King invited 60 ministers and black leaders from ten states throughout the Southeast, including Lowery, to meet at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta to develop a regional strategy to fight segregation. The group, dubbed the Southern Negro Leaders Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration, convened again in February in New Orleans, and the name was changed to the SCLC. King was named president and Lowery was named secretary; he would serve as vice president from 1957 to 1967. In 1960, Lowery, Abernathy, Shuttlesworth, and Montgomery minister Solomon Seay Sr. were sued for libel by Montgomery police commissioner Lester B. Sullivan in connection with an advertisement in The New York Times that claimed Montgomery police officers used shotguns and tear gas against student protesters. The ministers’ names were included without their knowledge, but they nevertheless were found guilty in the New York Times v. Sullivan decision handed down in Montgomery’s circuit court and upheld in the Alabama Supreme Court. The four ministers were ordered to pay $3 million, resulting in state-ordered confiscation of Lowery’s car and home. The U.S. Supreme Court would overturn the ruling in 1964 in Abernathy v. Sullivan.
In 1961, Lowery left his ministry in Mobile and took a position as administrative assistant to Bishop Michael Golden of Nashville, Tennessee, but continued his involvement in the civil rights movement and the SCLC. In 1964, Lowery returned to Birmingham to pastor the St. Paul United Methodist Church, where he preached nonviolent response to the increasingly violent activities of white supremacists in the city, including the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 1963. During the lead up to the Selma to Montgomery March of March 1965, King asked Lowery to ask former Florida governor Leroy Collins, who was known for his public support of integration in 1957 and presence at the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, to visit Selma and meet with King and city and county authorities to raise national awareness on the need to improve voter registration processes. King also asked Lowery to make a personal call to Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson to urge him to intervene in Selma. On March 25, 25,000 protesters marched from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery to advocate for voting rights and protest the deaths of Jimmie Lee Jackson and James Reeb on February 26 and March 11, respectively. Lowery and a delegation of 20 marchers delivered a petition to Gov. George Wallace‘s executive secretary demanding to speak with him but were refused entrance to the capitol.
With the assassination of King on April 4, 1968, and Abernathy’s succession as SCLC president that August, Lowery moved to Atlanta to become pastor of Central United Methodist Church, where he continued his activism. He assisted Julian Bond, of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, with his campaign for the Georgia legislature in 1975. In August 1977, Lowery was named president of SCLC in the wake of Abernathy’s resignation. By 1979, Lowery became embroiled in a power struggle with SCLC leader Hosea Williams that resulted in Lowery firing Williams. That same year, Lowery joined local Birmingham SCLC official Abraham Woods to protest the June 22, 1979, unprovoked shooting death of Bonita Carter by a Birmingham police officer. The incident sparked further demonstrations when the officer was not charged with any crime and was supported by Mayor David Vann. African Americans then began supporting Richard Arrington, who was elected as the city’s first African American mayor in 1979.
As SCLC president, Lowery continued to confront racism in the South. In Alabama in 1979, Lowery and SCLC field director R. B. Cottonreader protested the conviction of Tommy Lee Hines, a 26-year-old mentally challenged African American man from Decatur, Limestone and Morgan Counties, who was arrested in 1971 for allegedly raping three white women. Lowery, Evelyn Lowery, and Cottonreader led a march on May 26 between Decatur and Cullman, Cullman County, after Hines’s conviction, which resulted in a confrontation and shootout with the local Ku Klux Klan in which two protesters and two Klansmen were injured. Hines was acquitted in a Jefferson County court in 1980. (In 1983 at Lowery’s request, Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center pursued prosecution of the Klan attack on the protest; seven Klan leaders and two Klansmen were federally indicted in May 1984.) In February 1982, Lowery helped lead one of the largest civil rights marches since the March 25, 1965, Selma to Montgomery march. Beginning in Carrolton, Georgia, with 300 supporters, it ended at the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery with 3,500 supporters to protest the conviction of Julia Wilder and Maggie Bozeman from Carrolton for voter fraud and to demand an extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Lowery was named pastor of the Cascade United Methodist Church in Atlanta in 1986. There, he focused much of his energy on projects devoted to bringing economic opportunities to black communities in the South. He served as a board member for the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority and ensured that lines ran through African American neighborhoods and worked with SCLC chapter leaders to initiate a buy-back program aimed at removing guns from black communities. Evelyn Lowery initiated several programs, including HIV/AIDS education for black communities and the Women’s Organizational Movement for Equality Now (W.O.M.E.N.) as an arm of the SCLC specifically dedicated to the rights of African American women and children; she would die in 2013. Lowery retired as senior pastor in 1992. In October 2001, the Lowerys established the Joseph and Evelyn Lowery Center for Justice and Human Rights at Clark Atlanta University. In January 2009, Lowery gave the benediction at the inauguration of Pres. Barack Obama’s first term in the White House. Lowery died in Altanta on March 27, 2020.
Warren, Nagueyalti. “Joseph E. Lowery.” Notable Black American Men. Farmington Mills, Mich.: Gale Research, 1999.
Lowery, Joseph E. Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2011.