From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Civil Rights Leader Lowery Retiring Again

From (United Methodist News list)
Date 18 Sep 1997 09:33:47

Reply-to: (United Methodist News list)
"UNITED METHODIST DAILY NEWS 97" by SUSAN PEEK on April 15, 1997 at 14:24

Note 330 by UMNS on Sept. 18, 1997 at 10:28 Eastern (9275 characters).

CONTACT: Thomas S. McAnally		518(10-21-28-31-71B){330}
		Nashville, Tenn. (615) 742-5470 	Sept. 17, 1997

EDITORS NOTE: A Photo is available with this story.

Joseph Lowery: Civil Rights leadership
grew out of a call to preach the gospel

A UMNS News Feature
by Alice Smith*

	United Methodist clergyman Joseph E. Lowery, 75, is retiring again - but the
voice of eloquent oratory and incisive preaching will not be stilled.
	"I'll raise my voice about issues, but I won't have to raise the budget," he
said with a touch of humor and characteristic turn of phrase.  "Now I have to
raise my voice and the budget, and raising the budget is getting more and more
	Just as he has continued to preach every Sunday somewhere across the nation
since his formal retirement from "pastoring" five years ago, so he will
continue to speak out on justice issues when he retires as president of the
Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) at the end of this year.
	Early this summer he and his wife Evelyn were honored at a gala SCLC banquet
attended by celebrities and politicians and featuring a video tribute from
President Clinton.  Mrs. Lowery has not only been a helpmate through 50 years
of marriage but is herself a distinguished figure in the Civil Rights
	Lowery's stepping down from the organization he helped found in 1957 and of
which he has served as president since 1977 marks a milestone in the history
of the movement.  He was among the group of Alabama preachers who, with the
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., changed forever the face of segregated America
through a tactic called non-violent resistance.
	In a movement spawned and nurtured by the black church and led by its clergy,
Lowery's name has been the most nationally known among United Methodist
clergy.  Most of the civil rights leaders, he said, were from black Baptist
denominations.  "Baptists stayed in communities and could build followings,
credibly.  Methodists moved, and had to deal with a white ecclesiastical power
	"Martin used to tease me when he introduced me, 'this is Dr. Joseph Lowery. 
He is a moo-ving figure in the Methodist Church."
	Through the sit-ins and jailings and, in more recent years, forging
agreements with corporate America to aid black economic development, Lowery
has foremost been a preacher of the gospel whose activism has grown out of a
commitment to a wholistic message.
	"I've always felt my calling was not only to help people make heaven their
home but to make their home here heavenly," he said.  "I don't think you can
fragment the gospel ... When the Word says the earth is the Lord's, it
includes its political and economic aspects as well as its spiritual aspects."
	In a recent interview in the unpretentious SCLC offices in downtown Atlanta,
Lowery looked back over the past half century and said somewhat sardonically,
his greatest accomplishment has been "staying alive."
	While non-violent demonstrations often were answered by violence during the
height of the Civil Rights Movement, as late as 1979 a group of Ku Klux
Klansmen attacked black marchers in Decatur, Ala.  They were defending a young
retarded man, Tommie Lee Hines, accused of assaulting three white women.
	Although Lowery was not wounded, three young people were shot and bullets hit
the windshield of the car Mrs. Lowery was driving, barely missing her.  "She
usually marches with me," he said, "but this time we had been warned there
would be trouble, so I insisted she drive a car in the back of the march."
	A native of Huntsville, Ala., Lowery was serving as pastor of a Methodist
Church in Mobile when the Civil Rights Movement got underway, but activism was
already in his blood.  He grew up in the shadow of the church, which was used
for both worship services and meetings on community issues.  In college he was
active in the youth movement of the NAACP.
	In Mobile, bus desegregation was achieved fairly easily, unlike some sister
Alabama cities, Lowery recalled.  During those years in Alabama, Lowery, King,
the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy met regularly to
coordinate their efforts and activities.  Out of those meetings the SCLC was
	Lowery left Alabama in 1961 and went to Nashville to become administrative
assistant to Bishop Charles Golden of the segregated Central Jurisdiction of
the Methodist Church and then to Birmingham in 1964.  Since 1968 he has lived
in Atlanta, serving first as pastor of Central United Methodist Church for 18
years and then of Cascade for six years before his retirement at the mandatory
age of 70 in 1992.
	While he was working to desegregate society at large, he also was speaking
out within his denomination.  At the 1966 General Conference in Chicago he
spoke passionately of the need to integrate the structure and divisions in the
	Because of that speech, said a story released by the denomination's news
service at the time, he was elected SCLC president, "many delegates and
observers believe the new United Methodist Church came into being in 1968 with
a specific plan and timeline for definite elimination of the former Central
Jurisdiction and racially-defined annual conferences."
	When he was named president of SCLC in 1977, the late Bishop William R.
Cannon said Lowery had brought honor upon the United Methodist Church.  "He
did not seek the office; the office sought him.  He is a true disciple of
Martin Luther King Jr."
	Lowery believes the policy and doctrines of the United Methodist Church give
firm support to the Civil Rights Movement and that the denomination on a
national level "has been in the vanguard.  The closer you get to the local
community, the more it breaks down.  The gospel they're preaching [in local
churches] is timid, lukewarm ... it's a gospel designed more to protect the
institution than it is to stir up the people like Jesus did."
	In 1993, the Council of Bishops at its meeting outside Atlanta presented
Lowery with an award for "courageous, prophetic, visionary leadership in the
field of civil rights, justice and the SCLC."
	Speaking to the bishops that day, he said, "Solutions to our problems don't
rest in legal pronouncements nor Supreme Court edicts nor legislation.  The
solutions rest in 'what thus saith the Lord.'"
	As integration was achieved in society, the SCLC turned its attention to
other justice issues -- affirmative action, black voter registration,
apartheid, AIDS education, and more recently, the burning of black churches.
	Lowery spearheaded landmark economic agreements with Shoney's and Publix and
instituted a gun buy-back program that has taken 20,000 guns off the street.
	One of his regrets, he said, was the SCLC's decision not to fight the lottery
in Georgia.  "We miscalculated; we thought it was going to pass
overwhelmingly.  We threw up our hands, chickened out.  We could have beaten
it.  No one was more surprised than we were at the closeness of the vote and I
regret it because it hurts poor people."
	Today's society is vastly different from that of the 1950's but the problems
are even more complex and just as excruciating -- violence, drugs, AIDS, a
growing economic disparity between the right and the poor, materialism and
	What has not changed is the solution to the problems - a rebirth of
spirituality.  Segregation at its core, Lowery noted, is a spiritual question.
 "If you discriminate against me because I'm black, you have to take it up
with God because he made me black."
	Likewise, the rampant materialism of the 1990s is a religious matter, he
said, quoting the commandment: "Thou shall have no other God's before me."
	The church, Lowery said, has to "aggressively preach love and
programmatically deal with poverty, despair, discrimination, greed,
	The growing economic gap "portends social chaos," he warned.  "It's our lust
for the material, our greed, that leads to exploitation and disparities that
are growing in our society .... The SCLC, which considers itself the alter ego
of the black church, has been trying to address that, but the churches -- both
black and white -- have not."
	What will change people's hearts and lives, he said, is the gospel message of
redemption, reconciliation, love and justice.
	He has seen such transformation first-hand, nowhere more dramatically than in
the life of former Alabama Governor George Wallace who traveled the road from
racism to repentance.
	Lowery first met fellow-Methodist Wallace in 1965 when, at a meeting arranged
by the Methodist bishop of Alabama, he presented the SCLC's demand for equal
voting rights following the bloody Selma-to-Montgomery march where several
were injured.
	The last meeting took place in 1995, following the reenactment of the march
when Wallace, now old and crippled, asked to meet with the marchers.
	In a New York Times article, Lowery wrote, "We could not, would not, deny him
an act of repentance.  We serve a God who makes the crooked places straight,
makes the desert bloom, and makes the lion to lie down with the lamb ... Isn't
that what the world needs now?"
#  #  #

	* Smith is news director of the Communications Council of Georgia.





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