Minister and civil rights activist Joseph E. Lowery was a member of King’s inner circle of confidantes and colleagues. Lowery was a founding executive committee member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and was made a vice president in the late 1950s. Lowery continued to work for SCLC after King’s death, serving as president from 1977 through 1997.
Lowery was born in Huntsville, Alabama, in 1921. After graduating from high school, he studied at Knoxville College and Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College before earning a BA (1943) from Paine College, a Methodist institution in Augusta, Georgia. The following year, he enrolled in Paine Theological Seminary to become a Methodist minister. After graduation, Lowery became pastor of the Warren Street United Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama, where he also became president of the local Alabama Civic Affairs Association.
Lowery and King worked closely throughout the 1950s and 1960s, as both men were committed to using nonviolence to achieve social justice. In the aftermath of the Montgomery bus boycott, Lowery, King, Fred Shuttlesworth and Ralph Abernathy formed SCLC to strengthen their work throughout the South.
In 1960, Lowery, Shuttlesworth, Abernathy, and Solomon Seay were sued for libel by the Montgomery police commissioner over an advertisement in the New York Times that sought to raise funds for King’s defense against felony charges related to alleged false statements in his 1956 and 1958 Alabama tax returns. Although an all-white jury initially ordered the defendants to pay $500,000 and Lowery had his car seized and sold at public auction, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the libel verdict in 1964, in New York Times v. Sullivan. In 1961 Lowery moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he led marches and sit-ins against segregation in public facilities and continued to serve SCLC. Three years later, Lowery returned to Alabama, where he served as pastor at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Birmingham until 1968.
Lowery supported King in times of personal crisis, such as when the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) sent King an anonymous letter in 1964 urging him to commit suicide. He also aided King practically, tying up loose ends while King was jailed in Selma, Alabama, in February 1965. Following King’s assassination, Lowery spoke in tribute at his memorial service in Atlanta.
In 1968 Lowery moved to Atlanta to pastor Central United Methodist Church and work with Abernathy, the new president of SCLC. In 1977, after Abernathy resigned, Lowery became president. He led SCLC for 20 years, focusing not only on civil rights in the South, but on human rights issues in the Middle East and South Africa as well. In 1982, Lowery and Jesse Jackson led a march from Tuskegee, Alabama, to Washington, D.C., to promote the extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Lowery retired from the church in 1992, and left SCLC in 1997, the year he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 2001 Clark Atlanta University established the Joseph E. Lowery Institute for Justice and Human Rights. In February 2006, at Coretta Scott King’s funeral, Lowery criticized the current war in Iraq and accused the government of not doing enough to fight poverty.
Abernathy, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, 1989.
Branch, Parting the Waters, 1988.
Branch, Pillar of Fire, 1998.
Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South, “Heed Their Rising Voices,” 29 March 1960, in Papers 5:382.
“Introduction” in Papers 5:24-26.
King to Fred D. Gray, 14 December 1960, in Papers 5:580.
John Malcom Patterson to King, 9 May 1960, in Papers 5:456.