SINGING, THE LORD’S SONG IN A STRANGE LAND
In Honor of Dr. Joseph Echols Lowery, October 6, 1921 – March 27, 2020
“We shall never turn 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. We ain’t going back…we’re going forward.” Quote from his book, Singing, The Lord’s Song In A Strange Land published in 2011.
These words from Dr. Joseph E. Lowery given to an overflow crowd at Big Bethel Church in Atlanta, Georgia in 1990 at a gathering for newly released South African freedom fighter and soon to be president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela. Dr. Lowery would lead a delegation of officials a few years later to a free South Africa where a Memorandum of Understanding was signed by him, the Premier of KwaZula Natal Province, Sbu Ndebele and COMTO that provided training in areas of transportion Those areas included mass transit, airport management, taxicab management and highways. Along with Dr. Lowery, COMTO members of the delegation included Brad Hubbard, Georgia Department of Transportation, Helen McSwain and Gloria Gaines on the MARTA staff. Dr. Lowery served on the MARTA Board of Directors representing Fulton County, GA for 20 years during which time he also served for a period as chairman.
It was on this trip that Dr. Lowery so wooed the peopleof South Africa with his Southern Methodist peacher style of speaking that a request came from the Provincial Premier to suggest a school where that style of preaching and speaking could be studied. It would be his last trip to Africa.
The first day of his 18 years as pastor of Central United Methodist Church in Atlanta, everyone knew that the “Church at the Heart of the City with the City at Heart” would never be the same. From the initiation of the first gospel choir to the “I, Thou Soul House,” a Christian-based social gathering spot for community teenagers, the Rev. Dr. Joseph Echols Lowery brought a new spirit to the church. With a liberation theology preaching style more synonymous with Baptist preachers than the Methodists (now United Methodists) of 1968. He was the best preacher for the time to build on Central’s history as a leader in the movement for social justice.
“Rev. Joseph Lowery was a fighter for civil rights,” said Congressman John Lewis. “He spoke up spoke out, he never gave up. He marched and he protested all across America. We mourn his passing this evening. 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. I had the great honor of serving on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference board with him. His presence and leadership will be deeply missed.”
Often referred to as the Dean of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Lowery was a founder, along with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Dr. Ralph D. Abernathy and others, of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where he remained at the forefront of the civil rights movement for more than half a century.
Lowery was born Oct. 6, 1921, to LeRoy Lowery and Dora Fackler Lowery in Huntsville, Alabama. His great-grandfather was the Rev. Green Echols, the first black pastor of Lakeside Methodist Church in Huntsville. His mother made sure young Lowery attended church where he sang and spoke before the congregation.
As a youth, Lowery resisted the call to ministry. He originally aspired to become a lawyer. After high school, he attended both Knoxville College and Alabama A&M University before getting his undergraduate degree from Paine College in Augusta. In the mid-1940s, he moved to Birmingham, where he edited a weekly, the “Birmingham Informer,” to earn money for law school.
In 1947, Lowery met a Clark College student named Evelyn Gibson, the daughter of the Rev. H.B. Gibson Sr., on a blind date arranged by Evelyn Gibson’s younger sister. They married on April 5, 1948, and have three daughters, Yvonne, Karen and Cheryl, and 12 grandchildren.
“We were both young, but he was old for his age even then,” Evelyn Lowery said in 1985. “He was already talking on the same level as my father in terms of maturity and depth.”
Dr. Lowery’s destiny toward civil rights began in 1933, when he was only 11 years old. After being physically assaulted by a police officer at his father’s candy store, he went home to get a gun to search for the white cop. But as he got to the porch, his father, LeRoy Lowery, appeared and asked why he was crying. His father took the gun and gave him a lecture. Lowery said that day in 1933 was his introduction to civil rights. Due to the trajectory of his life, it seems God-inspired that his father came home early that day.
Lowery finally answered the call to preach, and instead of law school, he attended Payne Theological Seminary, Wayne State University, Garrett Theological Seminary and the Chicago Ecumenical Institute to study religion.
In 1949, Lowery was appointed to his first church, East Thomas United Methodist in Birmingham, with a salary of $21 a week. “I couldn’t preach then,” he said. “But very politely they would say, ‘I enjoyed your sermon.’ I remember one lady said, ‘Keep on trying, son.’ ”
A year later, he moved to Alexander City, Ala., where he worked for three years for $30 to $40 a week. In 1953, he transferred to Mobile, Ala., to take over the Warren Street Methodist Church.
An early supporter of the Montgomery bus boycott that King organized in 1955, Lowery organized one in Mobile that achieved quicker success. In February, 1957, Lowery, King and Abernathy were among a group of ministers and civil rights workers who formed the SCLC. King was elected president and Lowery was his vice president.
As a young man, he survived bombings and several attempts on his life, including a vicious 1979 Ku Klux Klan attack that nearly claimed the life of his wife, Evelyn. As an older man, he fought prostate cancer.
Coretta Scott King once said Lowery had “led more marches and been in the trenches more than anyone since Martin.”
In 1967, Lowery became chairmanship of the SCLC board. In the summer of 1968, Lowery transferred to Atlanta’s Central United Methodist Church, one of the most prestigious black pulpits in the South. At Central, the congregation grew to more than 2,000 members. The Central Grocery Closet was initiated as an emergency food relief resource for community agencies seeking to help needy Atlantans. The Choral Ensemble, now named United Voices of Central Gospel Choir, was initiated. The “I, Thou Soul House” was opened in the church fellowship hall as a social outlet for the church and community teenagers. Central Methodist Gardens, a 240-unit low-income apartment housing complex, was completed. Central became one of the first local churches to initiate a television ministry in 1975. During Lowery’s tenure he attracted numerous students from the Atlanta University Center, many of whom he inspired to the ministry. He remained at Central for 18 years before transferring to Cascade United Methodist.
Lowery was one of the city’s key social, religious and civil rights figures and named one of the 15 greatest black preachers by Ebony magazine in 1993. He was a dynamic speaker dubbed the Dean of the Civil Rights Movement by the NAACP. Lowery was elected SCLC President in 1977.
Lowery retired as pastor of Cascade in 1992, at age 70. He retired from the SCLC in 1997. He formed the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples Agenda, an umbrella organization of civil and human rights groups. Under its banner, Lowery worked with Rep. Tyrone Brooks in the fight to change the Georgia flag. The coalition worked to urge George W. Bush to re-authorize the Voting Rights Act and for the state to reject a controversial voter ID bill. That year Ashby Street was renamed Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard and a lecture series was created in his name in the Atlanta Public Schools system.
In celebration of his 80th birthday in 2001, the Joseph E. Lowery Institute for Justice and Human Rights, a think tank to research and analyze issues related to civil and human rights, was established at Clark Atlanta University.
Well into his 90s, he was still Atlanta’s most active civil rights icon and voice for justice and equality. Many leaders continued to seek his assistance and counsel, and he remained vocal on issues such as the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, Mo., and the nominations of two conservative Georgia judges.
Lowery was not afraid to be controversial. He often said he was grateful to have lived so long, considering that King died at 39. “I can’t (retire) because Martin is gone. Ralph (Abernathy) is gone. Hosea (Williams) is gone,” he said at a roast marking his 85th birthday in 2006. “I’m still here. God kept me here because I have been speaking the truth. Because I stand up against war and racism.” When asked how he was doing, he would always say, “I am just an old man, doing young things. I am tired, but happy.”
In 2008, Lowery worked on the Obama campaign as a national co-chair for voter registration. The 44th President Barack Obama chose Lowery to deliver the benediction at his inauguration in January 2009. A few months later, President Obama honored Lowery with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. On being admitted into Obama’s first class of Medal of Freedom recipients, Lowery said he hoped the president would build the better America for which he and King had laid the foundation.
“I did the best I could,” Lowery said in a 2008 interview about his tenure as SCLC President. “We tried to keep the flame burning, to keep the moral tone of the movement alive, to cry out for the moral imperatives of our faith. We continued to be the agitating force in the country. History will have to judge what that meant.”
Sources: www.ajc.com, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Central United Methodist Church History
Author: Gloria Gaines, Dougherty County Commissioner for District 5, Editor of the South West Georgian Newspaper, Past MARTA Executive/COMTO Atlanta Officer/South Africa Delegation Lead