The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, who has been called the dean of the civil rights movement, died Friday, The King Center said.
Lowery, 98, was a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with the Rev. Martin Luther King.
The Joseph and Evelyn Lowery Institute for Justice Human Rights said he died peacefully at 10 p.m. surrounded by his daughters at home.
“Hailed as the ‘Dean of the Civil Rights Movement’ upon his receipt of the NAACP’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Dr. Lowery had assumed and executed a broad and diverse series of roles over the span of his nine decades: leader, pastor, servant, father, husband, freedom fighter and advocate,” the institute said in a statement.
Lowery, who delivered the benediction in President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Obama later that year.
“Born and raised in Jim Crow Alabama, preaching in his blood, the Rev. Joseph Lowery is a giant of the Moses generation of civil rights leaders,” Obama said at the ceremony. “It was just King, Lowery and a few others, huddled in Montgomery, who laid the groundwork for the bus boycott and the movement that was to follow.”
He was born in Huntsville, Alabama, on October 6, 1921, and in the 1950s, he headed the Alabama Civic Affairs Association, the organization that led the movement to desegregate buses and public accommodations, according to the Joseph Evelyn Lowery Institute.
In 1965, King picked Lowery to chair the delegation delivering the demands of the Selma-to-Montgomery march to Alabama’s governor, George Wallace.
When activists crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were attacked and beaten by police in a pivotal moment for the civil rights movement that’s become known as “Bloody Sunday.”
“Our thoughts and prayers are with his family,” The King Center tweeted late Friday. “He was a champion for civil rights, a challenger of injustice, a dear friend to the King family.”
King was the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but Lowery served as president for 20 years. He restored the organization’s financial stability and pressured businesses not to trade with South Africa’s apartheid-era regime before retiring in 1997.
He never wavered in his efforts to urge blacks to exercise their hard-won rights by registering to vote.
“Black people need to understand that the right to vote was not a gift of our political system but came as a result of blood, sweat and tears,” he said in 1985.
His wife, Evelyn Lowery, died in 2013. She founded SCLC/WOMEN Inc. in 1979, which is a group that works to empower women, girls and families.
Bernice A. King, King’s daughter, tweeted that it was hard to imagine a world without Lowery. “I’m grateful for a life well-lived and for its influence on mine. I’ll miss you, Uncle Joe. You finally made it up to see Aunt Evelyn again,” she wrote.
In a 1998 interview, Lowery said he was optimistic that true racial equality would one day be achieved.
“I believe in the final triumph of righteousness,” he said. “The Bible says weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”
He is survived by his three daughters, Yvonne Kennedy, Karen Lowery and Cheryl Lowery-Osborne.
The family spokesperson told WXIA that Lowery’s death was not related to the coronavirus pandemic and that the family was asking for privacy Friday night.
Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, was among those paying respects Friday, calling Lowery a “towering figure.”
“A towering figure and icon has left us. Rest in Power,” she tweeted.
Clark Atlanta University, one of several institutions that awarded Lowery honorary doctorates and home to the institute named for Lowery and his wife, said in a statement that he was “a voice for sometimes voiceless.”
“We shall forever hold within our collective memory Reverend Lowery as the epitome soldier for justice who devoted his life to helping the least of God’s children,” University President George T. French, Jr. said.