Lead Story Obituaries West Edition

Dean of civil rights era Joseph E. Lowery dies

LOS ANGELES — Local officials responded to the death of the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, one of the last remaining giants of the civil rights movement, who died March 27 at the age of 98.

U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters and county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas were among those who spoke about Lowery.

“I am so blessed to have known Rev. Lowery for many years,” Waters said. “He was perhaps one of the most articulate spokespersons of the civil rights movement and I considered him a mentor and a dear friend.

“I had the privilege of spending time with Rev. Lowery and his beloved wife, Evelyn, on many occasions in Atlanta and in Washington, D.C., and I will miss his infectious smile, his sense of humor, and, most of all, his wisdom. Rev. Lowery never relented in his fight for peace, justice and equality.”

Ridley-Thomas added: “Lowery helped change the face of America.

“I was proud to know him and learn from him over the past four decades,” Ridley-Thomas said. “As the dean of an era, he helped guide a movement that moved this country to honor the ideals emblazoned in our history books not just as mere words, but as a working reality. May he always be remembered for his steadfast commitment to justice, equality and peace for all.”

The Joseph and Evelyn Lowery Institute for Justice & Human Rights said Lowery died peacefully of natural causes at his home surrounded by his daughters.

Lowery co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other black ministers. He was an integral part of pivotal moments in the nation’s history. Lowery and King’s work on behalf of the SCLC helped lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed by President Lyndon Johnson.

As the SCLC’s president for more than two decades, Lowery led protests for civil rights in South Africa and peace in the Middle East.

From early civil rights efforts to the 2009 inauguration of the country’s first black president — where he was asked by President Barack Obama to deliver the inauguration benediction — Lowery stood tall as a social justice icon.

Six months after Obama’s inauguration. the president awarded Lowery the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the nation.

On Twitter, President Obama called Lowery, “A giant who let so many of us stand on his shoulders. With boundless generosity, patience and moral courage, he encouraged a new generation of activists and leaders. Michelle and I remember him fondly today, and our love and prayers are with his family.”

Lowery, affectionately known as the dean of the civil rights movement, organized protests in the early 1950s aimed at desegregating buses in Mobile, Alabama, and was involved in coordinating the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. He marched from Selma to Montgomery and founded Georgia People’s Agenda.

During his lifetime, Lowery devoted himself to a wide range of causes including ending apartheid in South Africa, Palestinian liberation and criticizing U.S. foreign policy, and working toward criminal justice reform, calling the U.S. justice system “the last facet here of racial oppression.”

Lowery was born in Huntsville, Alabama in 1921. His parents were a teacher and a shopkeeper.

Called to preach, Lowery enrolled in the Payne Theological Seminary in Wilberforce, Ohio where he received his bachelor’s in divinity in 1944 and doctorate from the Chicago Ecumenical Institute in 1950.

Tributes from across the country poured in for Lowery, who remained committed to social justice — from fighting racism to speaking out against income inequality — throughout his life.

Lowery’s longtime friend, civil rights colleague and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, recalled Lowery as being “A true warrior during the height of the civil rights movement.”

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, another survivor of the civil rights era, took to Twitter to remember his colleague.

“Rev. Joseph Lowery was a fighter for civil rights,” Lewis said. “He spoke up, spoke out, he never gave up.

“He marched and he protested all across America. He made a lasting contribution and he will always be remembered for his role to help change and make our country and our world a better place.”

“Reverend Joseph Lowery dedicated his life to fighting for justice and inclusion, serving others to create a better world,” said U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris from California. “His legacy will continue to live on in the lives of those he touched.”

“He was a mentor, pastor, and friend to me,” tweeted the Rev. Al Sharpton. “The world is a better place because of him and I’m a better person because of his investment in me.”

The King Center in Atlanta tweeted, “The great Reverend Joseph E. Lowery transitioned from earth to eternity. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family. He was a champion for civil rights, a challenger of justice, a dear friend to the King family. Thank you, sir.”

Lowery was married to his wife, activist Evelyn Lowery, for 63 years until her death in 2013. He is survived by the couple’s three daughters, Yvonne Kennedy, Karen Lowery and Cheryl Lowery-Osborne. 

A statement from the family said due to current social distancing requirements, a public memorial will be scheduled in the summer or fall.