Museum News

Statement on the Passing of Renowned Minister and Civil Rights Leader Joseph Lowery

March 31, 2020
Rev. Joseph Lowery Getty Images/The Washington Post

Spencer Crew, interim director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, released the following statement today, March 31, on the death of minister and civil rights leader, The Rev. Dr, Joseph Lowery.

“It is with deep sadness that we at the National Museum of African American History and Culture mourn the passing of civil rights leader, social activist and minister Joseph Lowery. Known as the Dean of the civil rights movement, Lowery was a champion of human rights and social justice, fighting against racial prejudice and discrimination in the United States and globally, particularly in South Africa and Palestine.

Growing up in Huntsville, Alabama, the son of a teacher and shopkeeper, Joseph Echols Lowery witnessed firsthand the brutalities of the Jim Crow South. His personal experiences fueled his commitment to fight racial injustice. In the 1950s, Lowery, an ordained minister, moved to Mobile, Alabama, to serve as pastor of the Warren Street United Methodist Church. There he began his civil rights work as the leader of the Alabama Civic Affairs Association, an organization devoted to the desegregation of buses and public places. In 1957, Lowery co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and began playing pivotal roles in numerous protests and demonstrations, including Selma’s “Bloody Sunday” voting rights march March 7, 1965.

Lowery moved to Atlanta in the late 1960s to become pastor of Central United Methodist Church in Atlanta. He would also become chairman of the SCLC and later president, a position he would hold for more than two decades. During his tenure, Lowery helped revitalize the organization by bringing in new members and advocating for a broad range of issues at home and abroad—from Palestinian liberation and the end of apartheid in South Africa to police brutality and states’ rights.

Even in retirement, Lowery continued to fight against capital punishment and in support of gay rights and election reform. In the late 1990s, Lowery started the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda to educate and register new voters, a cause he was committed to until his passing.

During his lifetime, Lowery was the recipient of numerous honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2009. He delivered the benediction at Obama’s inauguration in January 2009. In 2001, Clark Atlanta University established the Joseph E. Lowery Institute for Justice and Human Rights in his honor.

Lowery will be remembered for his unrelenting dedication to justice and his commitment to changing the face of America.”

Here is a clip of the late Reverend Lowery from the Civil Rights History Project:

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About the National Museum of African American History and Culture 
Since opening Sept. 24, 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture has welcomed more than 6 million visitors. Occupying a prominent location next to the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the nearly 400,000-square-foot museum is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive cultural destination devoted exclusively to exploring, documenting and showcasing the African American story and its impact on American and world history. For more information about the museum, visit, follow @NMAAHC on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, or call Smithsonian information at (202) 633-1000.

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Media Contact(s): 

Jermaine House (202) 633-9495; 
Jason Spear (202) 633-9904;

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The National Museum of African American History and Culture will be a place where all Americans can learn about the richness and diversity of the African American experience, what it means to their lives and how it helped us shape this nation. A place that transcends the boundaries of race and culture that divide us, and becomes a lens into a story that unites us all.