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Civil Rights Movement

A few minutes with Rev. Joseph Lowery became a lasting memory

Remembering the ‘dean’ of the civil rights movement, who died at 98

When I met Rev. Joseph Lowery in 2012, I was a reporter for an African American newspaper, The Metro Courier. Lowery was visiting Paine College in Augusta, Georgia, that day, returning to his alma mater to encourage students to vote for Barack Obama as part of his reelection campaign.

It was fitting that I should meet the “dean” of the civil rights movement at a historically black college and university. I’m the son of parents who met at an HBCU and I attended an HBCU, and yet, it took that meeting to truly understand Lowery’s legacy and his vast accomplishments. It’s a moment that resonates with me even more after hearing Lowery died Friday at 98 years old.

“Without our young people, there will be no healing. We are counting on our young people,” he said at the time. “They need to understand how critical their role is. Without them, we are helpless and hopeless.”

Lowery had just entered his 90s during that visit eight years ago. He had color in his skin — liveliness — and a twinkle in his eye that reminded me of my maternal grandmother. You know how old folks can be. Sometimes they do memorable things that defy their age. My grandmother loved to walk, and would walk practically anywhere. I will always remember a time in my childhood that I ran out of her house, seemingly out of the range of having an old lady get the best of me.

In one step, she picked up the closest broomstick and hurled it in my direction about 40 or 50 feet, almost like a lightning bolt from heaven. She was in her 60s at the time, and if it hadn’t been for my spry legs, it would have zapped me right in the back.

What I remember distinctly about Lowery is his force of personality and quick wit, both so powerful that he could capture an audience of his peers, or an audience 70 years younger than him. His visit to Paine College was an example of his determination to close a generation gap. He was a man of many generations and that power of transcendence — now and forevermore — may have been his greatest strength.

A native of Huntsville, Alabama, Lowery was inspired to work as an activist after an incident of police brutality in which he was punched in the stomach with a cop’s nightstick.

In his mid-30s, he helped start the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) with Martin Luther King Jr. Their leadership, which came at great sacrifice to both men, led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

He might have spoken about his colleagues such as King in terms of the past, yet his commentary about civil rights in general always existed in the present.

“Most of my colleagues are gone,” lamented Lowery before his 88th birthday back in 2009. “I know the Lord hasn’t left me here to do nothing.

“All movements try to lead people up a steep hill against the odds, and to try to follow the footsteps of Martin was hard, because we can’t.”

Lord knows he did his very best.

In 2010, when infighting plagued the SCLC, it was its co-founder who challenged and rebuked the group:

“Those in a position of leadership have let the organization drift,” he said. “It’s contrary to everything we stood for. We set out to help the world solve its problems in the context of the common good, and here we are setting a poor example.”

A year later, Lowery and the Georgia Black Legislative Caucus filed a federal lawsuit that fought for the voting and political rights of black people in Fulton and DeKalb counties.

Nearly 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Lowery found himself on the frontlines again as the lead plaintiff in that lawsuit.

“I want to make sure that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is recognized and honored,” he said.

Activism has a way of hardening a person’s emotions as much as it does their resolve. That never happened with Lowery, and at the same time, he never stopped fighting. His lightheartedness was on full display during the 2009 benediction for President Obama’s inauguration, where he provided this rhythmic footnote:

“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 yellow will be mellow … when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right. That all those who do justice and love mercy, say amen.”

And to think Lowery “officially retired” on King’s birthday in 1998, but no one respected his retirement, he said. Why? “My wife says it’s because I don’t respect it either.”

The more I learn about the history of our people, the more I appreciate meeting Lowery. Sometimes, we treat the civil rights movement as a moment in time instead of a continuing struggle.

Lowery understood the urgency of today and passed that down to an unknowing writer in a profound way.

Ken J. Makin is a freelance writer and the host of the Makin’ A Difference podcast. Before and after commentating, he’s thinking about his wife and his sons.