The King Center described him as a "champion for civil rights, a challenger of injustice, and a dear friend to the King family".
Reverend Joseph Echols Lowery passed away on Friday, family representative Imara Canady confirmed. A prominent civil rights leader who worked in collaboration with Reverends Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson, he passed away due to natural causes at the age of 98, CNN reports. He was often called the "dean" of America's civil rights movement and played an important role in addressing the injustices of the United States' criminal justice system. Several messages of condolence have since poured in, most notably from The King Center. His legacy and the impact he made will forever be ingrained in the country's history.
The Reverend was born in Huntsville, Alabama, where his mother was a part-time schoolteacher and his father owned a small business, a sweets shop. His hometown was well-defined by racial segregation, which was typical of Southern mill villages of the 1920s. The Klu Klux Klan's cross burnings and other scare tactics were commonplace. Lowery's desire to work as a civil rights activist was triggered by an encounter he had with a white police officer when he was 12 or 13 years old. He once explained in a 2004 interview with the Atlanta Tribune magazine, "A big white policeman was coming in, and he punched me in the stomach with his nightstick. He said, 'Get back n*gg*r. Don't you see a white man coming in the door?'"
He only joined the fight against segregation after graduating from college and becoming an ordained Methodist minister serving congregations in Alabama and Georgia. Once he joined the movement, he organized marches in Selma and Birmingham, Alabama. As a pastor, he spent nearly half a century serving with Central United Methodist and Cascade United Methodist in Atlanta, Georgia. On the other hand, as a civil rights leader, he was a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) civil rights organization in partnership with King. The organization's work led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson.
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"We had been through sit-ins and kneel-ins where we had been beat up and locked up and cussed out and locked out," Lowery said in 1994 of the battle to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act. "It was a milestone, a watershed. It helped America take off the cloak of official segregation." He went on to serve as the SCLC's president for more than two decades. As president, he led protests for civil rights in South Africa and peace in the Middle East. Even after retiring in 1992, he remained a prominent activist. He fought for gay rights and election reform and against capital punishment. He affirmed, "We had to remain ever vigilant and energetic to protect those rights, lest the clock be turned back." In 2009, he was awarded the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom by then-President Barack Obama for his lifetime of activism.
Following his death, The King Center, tweeting a photo of Lowery with King and fellow activist Wyatt Tee Walker, stated, "Tonight, the great Reverend Joseph E. Lowery transitioned from earth to eternity. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family. He was a champion for civil rights, a challenger of injustice, a dear friend to the King family. Thank you, sir." Bernice King, the youngest child of civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, also shared a sweet message. She tweeted, "It’s hard to imagine a world or an Atlanta without Reverend Joseph 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." Lowery married wife Evelyn Gibson in 1950. The couple had three daughters together. Needless to say, America owes a great deal to this civil rights icon.