Joseph Echols Lowery was born in Huntsville, Alabama on October 6, 1921. In an interview with leftist author Juan Williams for the 2004 book My Soul Looks Back in Wonder: Voices of the Civil Rights Movement, Lowery recalled a pivotal experience in 1934 that had helped shape his worldview: After nearly colliding with a white police officer in the doorway of a grocery store owned by Lowery’s father, Lowery recounted: “He [the officer] punched me in the stomach with his night stick and said, ‘Get back, nigger! Don’t you see a white man coming in the door?’” “That planted a seed in me,” Lowery added. “It’s a wonder it didn’t make me hate …. After I went into the ministry, I realized my call to preach involved social justice as much as it did heaven.”
After earning a BA from Paine College in 1939 and a Doctor of Divinity degree from the Chicago Ecumenical Institute in 1950, Lowery became the pastor of a Methodist church in Mobile, Alabama in 1952 — a position he went on to hold for nine years.
Lowery was heavily involved in the budding civil-rights movement during the 1950s. After Rosa Parks’ famous arrest in Alabama in 1955, Lowery helped lead the subsequent Montgomery bus boycott. In 1957 he co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) with Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, and he was named vice president of the organization.
In 1964 Lowery became pastor of St. Paul’s Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where he continued to participate in numerous civil-rights demonstrations. In 1968 he was named pastor of the Central Church in Atlanta and was elevated to the position of SCLC chairman. And in 1977 Lowery became the president of SCLC, a position he would hold for the next 20 years.
In September 1979, Lowery, along with the NAACP‘s then-president, Benjamin Hooks, and its future president, Julian Bond, traveled to Libya where the trio honored President Muammar Qadhafi with a “Decoration of Martin Luther King” medal. Next, Lowery went to Lebanon to meet with PLO leader Yasser Arafat — a meeting that ended with Lowery and Arafat linking arms and singing “We Shall Overcome.” When an American interviewer later asked Lowery if he accepted “the popular image of the PLO as a bunch of terrorists,” the minister replied: “Well, that depends on how you define terrorists … I don’t mind calling them terrorists. I don’t mind because I also call [Israeli Prime Minister Menachem] Begin a terrorist … the PLO is not just a bunch of terrorists.” In response to a subsequent backlash from Jewish civil-rights figures, Lowery urged Jews to engage in a “less paternalistic relationship” with blacks, adding: “We didn’t need the Jewish community, the State Department, or even President [Jimmy] Carter to give us permission” to meet with Arafat and Qadhafi. And when reporters asked Lowery what he thought “motivates U.S. policy on the Mideast,” he replied: “The [Carter] administration is responding to a very strong Jewish lobby.”
In 1982 Lowery endorsed the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, a Communist Party USA (CPUSA) front group that grew out of the struggle to free the incarcerated Marxist icon Angela Davis.
In the early ’80s as well, Lowery was an endorser of a petition circulated by the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, a Soviet-sponsored initiative that sought to keep the USSR’s nuclear and military superiority permanently in place.
In the mid-1980s, Lowery became pastor of the Cascade United Methodist Church in Atlanta, and he was active in the movement to abolish apartheid in South Africa.
Also during that decade, Lowery warned that “white racism is gaining respectability again,” and that “there’s a resurgence of racism … at almost every level of life.”
Lowery firmly believed that the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1980s was illegally importing cocaine from Colombia and then selling it in the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles — for the purpose of raising money to fund the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan Contras in their war against the Marxist, Soviet-backed Sandinistas of Daniel Ortega. For this and other reasons, Lowery — who once hosted a reception for Ortega in Atlanta — charged that the United States government had “become the villain of the Western Hemisphere.” Moreover, Lowery was an advisory board member with the now-defunct Christic Institute, which likewise accused the CIA of conspiring to use drug money to support the Contras.
When Lowery in 1988 tried to encourage African Americans to patronize black-owned banks whenever possible, he rebuked his critics by saying: “Nobody says the Jews are boycotting when they support their [own] institutions.”
Lowery retired from his work as a pastor in 1992 but remained politically active. For instance, he helped lead a campaign to remove the Confederate battle flag from the Georgia state flag.
Making no secret of his low regard for black conservatives, Lowery in the 1990s voiced contempt for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, specifically because the latter was opposed to the use of affirmative action in business and academia. Said Lowery: “I have told [Thomas] I am ashamed of him, because he is becoming to the black community what Benedict Arnold was to the nation he deserted; and what Judas Iscariot was to Jesus: a traitor; and what Brutus was to Caesar: an assassin” (emphasis in original). Lowery stated that society had a “responsibility … to have affirmative action” as a way to “make up for [its] sins.”
In 1996 Lowery told a press conference, “We have never stopped believing for a moment that there was some government complicity in the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” At the same event, Lowery resurrected his claim that the CIA was secretly selling cocaine in black neighborhoods: “This is a new and worse form of slavery — chemical warfare in the form of drugs. Its worse than anything Saddam Hussein has done.”
In 1996 as well, Lowery was one of the original 130 founders of the Campaign for America’s Future. That same year, he and a number of allies helped Kim Bobo establish the Interfaith Worker Justice coalition for the purpose of “engaging the religious community in low-wage worker campaigns and rebuilding partnerships with the labor movement.”
At a 2000 banquet of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society in Cleveland, Lowery said the following about America’s activities during the Cold War: “You could get away with anything as long as you said you were fighting communism…. We [Americans] demonized the saints and canonized the Devil!… We have sown the wind, and we are reaping the whirlwind.” Also at that banquet, Lowery claimed that conservatives viewed God as “male, white [and] racist”; that affirmative action was “born in the New Testament, not the Nixon Administration”; that America’s modern-day criminal-justice system was “almost a replica of the [racist] system of 1909”; and that capital punishment by lethal injection, as practiced in the United States, was something the “Nazis started.”
Dismissive of the significance of the Clinton administration’s forcible return of a young boy named Elian Gonzalez to Fidel Castro‘s Cuba in 2000, Lowery sarcastically quipped: “We’re still fearful of the great empire of Cuba.”
In 2001 Lowery impugned the U.S. for having boycotted the United Nations World Conference Against Racism (in Durban, South Africa), an anti-Israel hate-fest where Jewish delegates were verbally abused and physically assaulted. Calling America’s withdrawal from the event “a shameful cop-out,” Lowery declared that the United States was “not committed to serious efforts to address the issue of racism.”
At a 2004 United Methodist Board of Church and Society event in Pittsburgh, Lowery lamented that America’s wealthy were exploiting and further impoverishing the poor, and he characterized low minimum wages and the absence of socialized medicine in the U.S. as “weapons of mass destruction.” In addition, Lowery exhorted the United States to beat its missiles into “morsels of bread,” and its tanks into tractors. “Don’t we have something better to offer the world than swords and missiles and smart bombs on stupid missions?” he asked. “The God I serve loves the motherless child in Baghdad as much as he loves the motherless child in Boston.” Proceeding to denounce America’s war on terror, Lowery asserted that the United States, by killing Muslims (and thereby outraging the Islamic world), was doing “more to help [Osama] bin Laden in his demagoguery than anything I know of.” Lowery also likened President Bush to the former segregationist governor of Alabama, George Wallace.
In April 2004, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) sued Lowery for not securing approval from its board before leasing SCLC property to his wife’s organization (SCLC Women) ten years earlier for $1 a year. The suit also alleged that Mrs. Lowery had never asked for permission to use the term “SCLC” in the name of her group. The SCLC eventually dropped the suit, not because it was frivolous but because the organization wanted to move past “infighting.”
In February 2005 Lowery collaborated with Louis Farrakhan, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, Donna Brazile, former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, and columnist Julianne Malveaux to draft a “Covenant with Black America,” a self-described “national plan of action to address the primary concerns of African Americans today — from health to housing, from crime to criminal justice, from education to economic parity.”
In August 2005 Lowery paid a friendly visit to Cindy Sheehan and her fellow anti-war demonstrators outside President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas. “I think that God has worked through this mother … God is speaking to us through this movement by the mothers,” Lowery said, adding: “It’s time to bring the troops home. We call upon Congress to demand that the administration present a plan to withdraw the troops, and if they don’t, that we cut off funding. We have got to be radical. Radicality of change and spirituality demand that we say bring the troops home now.”
In October 2005 Lowery supported Louis Farrakhan’s Millions More March in Washington, DC.
In 2006 Lowery again joined Cindy Sheehan’s anti-war demonstrators in Texas, opining that Iraqi mothers viewed U.S. troops as “terrorists.”
When he eulogized the newly deceased Coretta Scott King, widow of the slain civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, at an Atlanta memorial service in February 2006, Lowery used the occasion to deliver an anti-war message while condemning the foreign policies of President George W. Bush, who was in attendance at the service. Said Lowery: “[Coretta Scott King] deplored the terror inflicted by our smart bombs on missions way afar. We know now that there were no Weapons of Mass Destruction over there. But Coretta knew, and we know, that there are weapons of misdirection right down here. For war, billions more, but no more for the poor!”
When accepting the Robert O. Cooper Peace and Justice Award from Southern Methodist University’s Human Rights Center in 2008, Lowery asserted that the Bush administration worshiped “the god of war and the god of the rich and powerful.” “Creating weapons of mass destruction keeps us from focusing on major issues like feeding the hungry and poverty,” he added. Lowery also defended Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the controversial former pastor of Barack Obama, as someone who was engaged in legitimate “prophetic preaching.”
In 2008 as well, Lowery served as a member of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama’s African American Religious Leadership Committee. After Obama’s electoral victory that November, the president-elect picked Lowery to deliver the benediction at Obama’s January 20, 2009 inauguration. Lowery’s closing remarks in that benediction were racially charged: “Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back; when brown can stick around; when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right.”
In 2009, President Obama presented Lowery with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In 2012, Lowery spoke out against an Amendment designed to grant the state of Georgia the power to approve charter schools, irrespective of a local school board’s objections. He appeared in ads pleading with Georgians not to let lawmakers “resegregate our schools.”
At an October 2012 get-out-the-vote event in Georgia, Lowery became angry when speaking about blacks who were undecided about supporting Obama’s re-election bid at the polls: “I don’t know what kind of a ni–er wouldn’t vote with a black man running. All that he [Obama] did with the stimulus was genius. Nobody intelligent would risk this country with [Republican challenger Mitt] Romney.” Further, Lowery maintained that if not for America’s widespread white racism, Obama, who was locked in a tight race with Romney, would have been comfortably ahead in the polls: “If Obama was white, there would be no question on who was going to win.” According to a story in the Monroe County Reporter, Lowery also told those in attendance that “when he was a young militant, he used to say all white folks were going to hell. Then he mellowed and just said most of them were. Now, he said, he is back to where he was.”
Contrary to the official position of his United Methodist denomination, Lowery supported same-sex marriage. Indeed he once added his own name to a petition deriding his church’s stance on homosexuality as “spiritual violence.” Lowery also impugned black opposition to same-sex marriage, saying: “You can’t say you’re for equal rights and then make an exception.”
Lowery strongly supported abortion rights, and he called for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty for capital cases in Georgia.
During his long career as a public figure, Lowery received numerous honors from the civil rights establishment. In 1997 he was given an NAACP Lifetime Achievement Award for being the “dean of the civil rights movement.” He also received a Martin Luther King Jr. Center Peace Award, and the National Urban League‘s Whitney M. Young Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award (in 2004).
Lowery died of natural causes on March 27, 2020.