Our American Story

Revolutionary Messages Need Revolutionary Messengers

Rev. Dr. Joseph Echols Lowery, Congressman John Conyers, Rev. Dr. Ralph David Abernathy, Rosa Parks and Cleveland Robinson, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Horace C. Henry, © Horace Henry

Civil rights icon Reverend Dr. Joseph Echols Lowery passed away on March 27, 2020, at the age of 98. His commitment to racial justice, social equality, and nonviolent protest transformed the fight against oppression around the world.

Lowery was an early leader in the American Civil Rights Movement. Born to a teacher and store owner on October 6, 1921, in Huntsville, Alabama, Lowery witnessed firsthand both racism and the plight of working-class people in America. It was a combination of his faith and his upbringing that compelled Lowery to consistently risk life and livelihood for the betterment of others. Throughout his life, he gave his voice to the liberation of all people.

Known as the “Dean of the Civil Rights Movement,” Lowery organized one of the first bus boycotts in Mobile in the early 1950s. As pastor of Mobile’s Warren Street United Methodist Church, Lowery also offered the church as a sanctuary to community organizers and activists.

Later, he would help lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the march from Selma, and the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Lowery marched alongside his friend and co-organizer, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on the day that King delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.

Don’t get mad, get smart . . . . Let’s register to vote.

Reverend Dr. Joseph Echols Lowery

Lowery and King were two of the cofounders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, which functioned as a hub for organizing and brainstorming. King served as the group’s first president while Lowery served as its first vice president. From voters’ rights to rampant homelessness and hunger, the SCLC tackled the toughest political and community issues of its time. Lowery would later serve as president of the SCLC for 20 years, from 1977 to 1997.

Poster for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference

Poster for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift from the Trumpauer-Mulholland Collection; 2011.109.6.

Lowery never relented in his fight for justice and equality for all. Four decades after the death of his friend and civil rights icon Dr. King, Lowery remained on the front lines, battling injustice with an extraordinary fervor and delivery that echoed King’s.

In 1972, he campaigned for his friend and fellow SCLC leader Rev. Andrew Young, who became the first black congressman elected in Georgia in more than a century. In 1983, Lowery was arrested while protesting the dumping of toxic waste in a poor black community outside Raleigh, North Carolina. And in 1984, he was arrested in Washington, D.C., for protesting South African apartheid.

Handmade SCLC poster supporting justice

Poster supporting the SCLC Poor People’s Crusade, 1987-1988

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture; 2010.41.4.

Lowery never relented in his fight for justice and equality for all. Four decades after the death of his friend and civil rights icon Dr. King, Lowery remained on the front lines, battling injustice with an extraordinary fervor and delivery that echoed King’s.

In 1972, he campaigned for his friend and fellow SCLC leader Rev. Andrew Young, who became the first black congressman elected in Georgia in more than a century. In 1983, Lowery was arrested while protesting the dumping of toxic waste in a poor black community outside Raleigh, North Carolina. And in 1984, he was arrested in Washington, D.C., for protesting South African apartheid.

Even after his retirement from the pulpit in 1992, Lowery continued to fight against capital punishment and in support of election reform. He was also one of the first civil rights leaders to advocate for LGBTQ rights.

Handmade SCLC poster supporting justice

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture; 2010.41.4.

Lowery always stood up for what he believed in and revolutionized the fights of marginalized people against societal and systemic oppressions. Whether racism, sexism, classism, or any form of discrimination, Lowery fought tirelessly for a more fair, compassionate, and accepting world.

In response to questions about how he divided his civil rights work from his spiritual work, Lowery said, “I never separated my work with SCLC and civil rights from my ministry; it was all tied together. I never felt you could teach people to make heaven their home without teaching them to make their homes here heavenly.”

In January 2009, Lowery delivered the inaugural benediction for President Barack Obama, just a few blocks away from the National Mall grounds where he helped organize the pivotal March on Washington nearly 50 years before. In July 2009, President Obama awarded Lowery the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his lifetime of service and sacrifice.

Lowery was a revolutionary and prolific messenger whose life proved that radical change was both necessary and possible. When speaking about the legacy of his friend Dr. King during the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Lowery said, “Don’t get mad, get smart. Let’s register to vote. Let’s keep the movement alive. Let’s keep pushing and fighting for what we know to be right. That’s the way you remember Martin.”

Lowery was a champion of human rights and social justice who fought against racial prejudice and discrimination in the United States and globally until his passing.

The Civil Rights History Project, a collaboration between the Museum and the Library of Congress, offers an invaluable look at the Civil Rights Movement. Listen to interviews of Rev. Lowery and other icons of the Civil Rights Movement on the Civil Rights History Project website.