The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, a Presidential Medal of Freedom winner and civil rights leader, is this year’s speaker at Agnes Scott College’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation.
A retired minister in the United Methodist Church and the third president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Lowery participated in many major activities of the American Civil Rights Movement. Honored in 2004 at the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, he also delivered the benediction at the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009.
In a 2003 interview for Atlanta goodlife magazine, Lowery said that for him the Civil Rights Movement didn’t begin in the 1960s. It started much earlier when he was walking out of his father’s sweet shop and brushed against a White police officer who was walking in. The officer bellowed a racial epithet at 12-year-old Lowery, hit him in the stomach with a billy club and demanded, “Don’t you see a White man coming in the door?”
Lowery said his father talked to the mayor, who was sympathetic, but said there was nothing he could do. “We can’t pay policemen much, so all we get are rednecks, and they’re all like that,” the mayor said.
In another incident from his youth, Lowery, who’s now in his 90s, remembered his father being pulled over by the police even though he had done nothing wrong. “The police back then thought if a Black man was driving a nice car, it must be stolen. The policeman asked, ‘Boy, whose car is this?’ and my father replied, ‘This is Mr. Lee Lowery’s car. I’m driving it for him.’ Of course, my father was Lee Lowery, but the officer assumed the car belonged to a White man that my father worked for. That was my father’s way of handling the situation, but I knew it couldn’t be mine,” Lowery said.
Lowery’s initial career plan was to be a lawyer. “That was my plan,” he recalled. “God had a different one. I serve a meddlesome God.”
Instead, Lowery became a minister. When he was pastor of a church in Mobile, Black preachers across the South were meeting in small and large groups to formulate strategies to combat injustice, according to Lowery, and those meetings formed the roots of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization he co-founded with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“We thought back in the 1950s that if Blacks could just get into the mainstream, everything would be all right, but we didn’t know the stream was polluted,” he said. “We had a bigger job than we thought; we had to purify the stream.”
Lowery recalled how in the late 1990s, former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, after building a career on his anti-integration views, was aging, ill and approaching the end of his life. He had already apologized for many things he had done, including ordering the beating of marchers in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights march. He called Lowery and asked him to join him in prayer. Many were surprised that he accepted the invitation.
Lowery explained the decision simply: “Although he stood in the door to prevent integration [of the University of Alabama], I refused to stand in the door of his repentance.” The Civil Rights Movement, he explained, never sought to destroy racist Whites, but to enlighten them. “Black people have been the moral conscience of America. We have to teach White people that they can stand tall without standing on the necks of Black people.”
The Agnes Scott College Martin Luther King, Jr. Convocation is Friday, Jan. 18, at 2 p.m. in Gaines Chapel, Presser Hall.