98-year-old Lowery died at home in Atlanta on Friday, surrounded by family members, a statement said.
He died of natural causes that had nothing to do with the outbreak of the coronavirus.
“Tonight, the great Reverend Joseph E. Lowery passed from earth to eternity,” said the King Center in Atlanta remembered Lowery in a Friday night tweet. “He was a defender of civil rights, a challenger to injustice, a dear friend of the King family.”
Lowery chaired the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for two decades to restore the organization’s financial stability and to pressure companies not to trade with the apartheid regime in South Africa before retiring in 1997.
As dean of civil rights veterans, he saw a milestone in November 2008 that few of his movement colleagues believed would ever see him – the election of an African American president.
At an emotional victory celebration for elected President Barack Obama in Atlanta, Lowery said, “America is going to be reborn tonight.”
Lowery, an early and enthusiastic Obama supporter of the then democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, also gave the blessing when Obama took office.
“We thank you for empowering your servant, our 44th President, to inspire our nation to believe that we can work together to achieve a more perfect union,” he said.
In 2009, Obama Lowery awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian award.
In another high-profile moment, Lowery had a standing ovation at King’s widow Coretta Scott King’s 2006 funeral when he criticized the war in Iraq and said, “For the war, billions more but not more for the poor.” The comment also caused a shake of the head of then President George Bush and his father, former President George H.W. Bush, who was sitting behind the pulpit.
Lowery’s commitment to civil rights naturally grew out of his Christian faith. He often preached that racial discrimination in the areas of housing, employment and health care contradicted basic Christian values such as human value and fraternity.
“I never felt that your ministry should be focused on creating a heavenly home. I thought it should also serve to make your home heavenly,” he said once.
Lowery stayed active on issues such as war, poverty and racism long after he retired and survived prostate cancer and throat surgery after defeating Jim Crow.
His wife, Evelyn Gibson Lowery, who worked alongside her almost 70-year-old husband and served as head of SCLC / WOMEN, died in 2013.
“I will miss you, Uncle Joe. You finally managed to see Aunt Evelyn again,” said King’s daughter Bernice King in one Tweet Friday night.
Lowery was a pastor at Warren Street Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama in the 1950s when he met King, who was living in Montgomery, Alabama at the time. Lowery’s meeting with King, Rev. Ralph David Abernathy and other civil rights activists led to the founding of the SCLC in 1957. The group became a leading force in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s.
Lowery became SCLC President in 1977 after Abernathy resigned who took over the job after King’s murder in 1968. He took over an SCLC that was heavily in debt and quickly lost members. Lowery helped the organization survive and led it on a new course that included more mainstream social and economic policies.
Coretta Scott King once said that Lowery “had more marches and has been in the trenches more than anyone since Martin.”
He was arrested in North Carolina in 1983 for protesting the dumping of toxic waste in a predominantly black county and in Washington in 1984 when he demonstrated against apartheid.
He remembered a confrontation in Decatur, Alabama in 1979 when he and others protested the case of a mentally disabled black man accused of rape. He remembered that bullets flew a few inches above their heads and a group of clan members confronted them.
“I could hear them whoosh,” said Lowery. “I’ll never forget that. I died almost 24 miles from where I was born.”
He led in the mid-1980s A boycott that won over the Winn-Dixie food chain stop selling canned South African fruit and frozen fish when that nation was under the control of apartheid.
He continued to urge black people to exercise their hard-won rights by registering to vote.
“Black people have to understand that the right to vote was not a gift from our political system, but was due to blood, sweat and tears,” he said in 1985.
Like King, Lowery juggled his civil rights work with the ministry. He was pastor of the United Methodist Church in Atlanta for decades and preached long after he retired.
Joseph Echols Lowery was born in Huntsville, Alabama in 1921, and grew up in a Methodist church where his great-grandfather, Rev. Howard Echols, was the first black pastor. Lowery’s father, a grocer, often protested community racism.
After college, Lowery published a newspaper and taught in Birmingham, but the idea of becoming a minister “gnawed and gnawed at me,” he said. After marrying Evelyn Gibson, the daughter of a Methodist preacher, he began his first pastorate in Birmingham in 1948.
In a 1998 interview, Lowery said he was optimistic that true racial equality would one day be achieved.
“I believe in the ultimate triumph of justice,” he said. “The Bible says that crying can take a night, but joy comes in the morning.”
Lowery is a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha Brotherhood and is survived by his three daughters Yvonne Kennedy, Karen Lowery and Cheryl Lowery.