Update: The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery died on March 27, 2020.
The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, who has been called “the dean of the civil rights movement,” has worked as a champion for human rights for more than 50 years.
A co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Lowery helped lead the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and the Selma-to-Montgomery marches for voting rights 10 years later.
During his time on the national stage, Lowery also had a long career as a United Methodist pastor. He retired in 1992.
His most recent honor was delivering the benediction at the inauguration of President Barack Obama. In his prayer, Lowery said, “For we know that, Lord, you’re able and you’re willing to work through faithful leadership to restore stability, mend our brokenness, heal our wounds and deliver us from the exploitation of the poor or the least of these and from favoritism toward the rich, the elite of these.”
In an interview with Faith & Leadership during a visit to Duke University two days before the inauguration, Lowery talked about the connection between his work as a pastor and as a civil rights leader.
Q: You’ve had a very long distinguished career, and President Obama is starting a new leadership position. I wondered if there was anything that you’ve learned in your career that you wished you had known at the beginning.
Everything. (Laughing) I knew so little that there wasn’t much room for what I could have known. I don’t know. That would require some in-depth thought.
I think that one of the things is that in the preparation of all your messages, early in your career, be very careful at it -- thorough -- because you’ll never get away from them. They remain a part and parcel of you long into your career.
Q: Those things you say at the beginning are especially important?
Yes. I don’t know whether they will impress other people or not but they will impress you.
Q: You are so well known for your leadership on the national scale, and yet throughout your whole career you were also a pastor, right?
Most of it. I started pastoring in the mid ’40s and pastored until 1992.
Q: And for you, what’s the connection -- the interrelationship -- between those two jobs?
Well I didn’t have a “job.”
Q: Those two roles, I should say.
Yeah, I didn’t have a job. I never drew a salary. I had a position.
I lied to the bishop when I knew they were going to elect me president [of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference] in August of 1977. (Laughing) I was pastoring at Central United Methodist Church in Atlanta. I had been there nine years.
I went to the bishop out of courtesy and said “They’re talking about electing me president of SCLC.” He said, “Oh no. You can’t leave Central.” I said, “Wait a minute, bishop. I am not planning on leaving Central. I am just going to be the spokesman. You know Dr. King was not staff, he was spokesperson and he pastored Ebenezer at the same time. So I’ll just make speeches and make statements. I really won’t have that much to do otherwise that will take me away from my pastoral responsibilities.”
Which was true and untrue, you know. And he said, “Oh, that’s different.” And so he blessed me.
But I want to say this in regards to the two roles. I never really separated them. I saw and continued to see the pastor’s role as not only helping people make heaven their home but making their homes here heavenly, which means justice, enough to eat, adequate housing, and all of those good things. So you know I saw race and human relations as a theological-religious-moral problem.
If you discriminate against me because I am ignorant, that’s my fault. If you discriminate against me because I am loud and uncouth, that’s my fault. But if you discriminate against me because I am black, that’s a theological-creation-religious question that you have to take up with God.
So I think that the issue of human relations is right in the context of the preacher and the pastor and the priest and the prophet and whatever else he is.