Rev. Joseph Lowery, “Dean” of the Civil Rights Movement, Dies at 98

Civil rights icon and co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Rev. Joseph Lowery died on March 27. Lowery, who was hailed as the “dean” of the Civil Rights Movement, was 98 years old.

Joseph Echols Lowery, the son of a shopkeeper and a teacher, was born in 1921 in Huntsville, Alabama. An incident involving a white policeman hitting him and calling him the N-word at the age of 11 put him on the path of civil rights activism, he said in a 1998 interview with Emerge magazine.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change announced Lowery’s death on Twitter on Friday night. The center called Lowery “a champion for civil rights, a challenger of injustice, [and] a dear friend to the King family.” Despite the seven year age gap, Lowery was a close aide and advisor to Dr. King.

Lowery died of natural causes, family representative Imara Canady confirmed to CNN.

As a young Methodist minister, Lowery campaigned to integrate buses in Mobile, Alabama. After Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus on December 1, 1955, Lowery worked with Dr. King and fellow Alabama ministers to coordinate the 381-day boycott of the city’s segregated buses. The Supreme Court then ended racial segregation in Montgomery—and every other city and town in the country—on November 1956.

Lowery worked side-by-side with Dr. King, including helping establish the SCLC with the civil rights leader. According to The New York Times, Lowery led the SCLC for 20 years, from 1977 to 1997. Lowery was also with Dr. King just days before his assassination in April 1968.

In 1965, he presented the demands of protesters after the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery to then-Governor George C. Wallace. Wallace used state troopers against the marchers as they crossed Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, NPR reported. Thirty years later, Lowery accepted Wallace’s apology.

“Thirty years ago he beat us,” Lowery told NPR in 1995. “Thirty years later he came to greet us. I think that’s significant.”

Lowery continued to use his voice to advocate for civil rights and other causes, such as criminal justice reform, LGBTQ rights, ending apartheid in Souh Africa, Palestinian liberation and criticizing U.S. foreign policy, Vox reported. He bluntly criticized President George W. Bush over the Iraq War while speaking at the 2006 funeral for Dr. King’s widow and civil rights activist Loretta Scott King.

“We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over there, but Coretta knew, and we know that there are weapons of misdirection right down here,” he said. “Millions without health insurance. Poverty abounds. For war, billions more, but no more for the poor.”

In 2009, Lowery gave the benediction at President Barack Obama’s inauguration. The prayer, which borrowed from the Big Bill Broonzy song “Black, Brown and White Blues,” drew criticism from some but caused Obama to smile, according to The New York Times. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor later that year.

Lowery is survived by his three daughters. His wife Evelyn Gibson, whom he married in 1947, died in 2013. She was the founder of the nonprofit group SCLC/WOMEN (for Women’s Organizational Movement for Equality Now, which continues to advocate for disadvantaged women, children and families.

To learn more about the organization Lowery helped found, visit the SCLC's website here.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a senior writer for The North Star. She has published in various publications, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas.