Joseph Echols Lowery (1921-2020)

Joseph Lowery in Washington D.C., 2000
Courtesy John Matthew Smith (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Joseph Echols Lowery was an American minister in the United Methodist Church and a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957. Lowery was born on October 6, 1921 to Leroy and Dora Lowery in Huntsville, Alabama.

Because of an incident where Lowery at age 11 was punched by a white police officer, his father sent him to Chicago to stay with relatives and complete middle school there. Lowery returned to Huntsville in the 1936 complete his high school studies at William Hooper Council High School. After graduating in 1939, Lowery enrolled in Knoxville College, then Alabama A&M College in Huntsville (Now Alabama A&M University) before transferring to Paine College in Augusta, Georgia where he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology in 1943. A year later, he enrolled in Paine Theological Seminary in Wilberforce, Ohio for ministerial training but later transferred to the Chicago Ecumenical Institute where he received his Doctor of Divinity degree in 1950.

After college, Lowery met and married Evelyn Gibson in 1950. The couple had three daughters, Yvonne Kennedy, Karen Lowery, and Cheryl Lowery Osborne. Lowery also had two sons from a previous marriage to Agnes Moore, Joseph Jr and LeRoy II. Lowery and Agnes married sometime in the early 1940s and divorced sometime in the mid 1940s.

Lowery’s first assignment as pastor was the Warren Street Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama from 1952 to 1961. While at Warren Street, he headed the Alabama Civic Affairs Association whose mission was to desegregate buses and public places in Mobile. In 1956 he became involved with the Montgomery Bus Boycott that began with the arrest of Rosa Parks on December 1, 1955. In 1957, Lowery, Martin Luther King Jr, Fred Shuttlesworth, and other ministers, founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

In 1961, Lowery participated in marches and sit-ins in Nashville. Lowery took a position as administrative assistant to Bishop Michael Golden in Nashville but then returned to Birmingham, Alabama in 1964 to become pastor of St. Paul United Methodist Church. While there he participated in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches. In 1968, Lowery moved to Atlanta, Georgia to become pastor of Central United Methodist Church. There he worked with Rev. Ralph Abernathy who became president of SCLC after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968. Lowery become the third SCLC president after Abernathy resigned in 1977.

In 1982, Lowry and Jesse Jackson led a march from Tuskegee, Alabama to Washington to promote the extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Continuing his religious duties, Rev. Lowery served as pastor of Cascade United Methodist Church in Atlanta, Georgia from 1986 to 1992. Lowery also retired from the pulpit in 1997 and retired as SCLC president a year later.

In 2001, Clark Atlanta University established the Joseph E. Lowery Center for Justice and Human Rights. Five years later Lowery spoke at Coretta Scott King’s funeral where he openly criticized the war in Iraq and the absence of any meaningful government effort to fight poverty in the United States.

On January 20, 2009, Lowery spoke at newly elected President Barack Obama’s inauguration in Washington, D.C. Later that year he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. Among his other honors were an NAACP Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997 and Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award in 2009.

Reverend Joseph Echols Lowery, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, died on March 27, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia at the age of 98.