Joseph Lowery
National Visionary

Born on October 6, 1921, Huntsville, Alabama

Civil rights activist, pastor; former President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)

As a founding member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Joseph E. Lowery is a veteran of nonviolent activism and protest.  He has fought for the rights of blacks using nonviolent tactics and ministered to their spiritual needs during times of struggle.

Lowery as a boy
Lowery was born in Huntsville, Ala.  His father, LeRoy, owned a store in the black community while his mother, Dora was a part-time teacher.  Although he and his younger sister grew up in the cotton belt, he did not work the fields like many other blacks and was sheltered from some of the more blatant forms of racism that other blacks experienced. However, as a teenager, he was assaulted by a white policeman for not allowing a white man enter a store first.  He became more acutely aware of the indignities put upon black people and vowed to work for change as an adult.

Lowery entered Knoxville College in 1939 and majored in sociology.  He later transferred to Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College and again to Paine College.  After graduation, he became an editor for The Informer, a black newspaper in Birmingham, Ala.  While working part time at the paper, he re-enrolled in Paine Theological Seminary in 1944.  He met Evelyn Gibson during this time and they married in 1947.

Lowery began his work as a civil rights activist in the early 1950’s.  As head of the Alabama Civic Affairs Association, he led the movement for the desegregation of buses and public accommodations in Mobile.  In 1957, he joined Martin Luther King Jr. to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of which he was its first vice president.

Lowery continued to work for change in Alabama.  He challenged the way police treated blacks by exposing police brutality and advocating for the hiring of black police officers in Birmingham.  Lowery and three other SCLC staff members were sued for libel by the police commissioner of Montgomery in 1959.  They were found guilty and ordered to pay $3 million.  The suit was appealed and the SCLC staff was exonerated.

This interview has
been archived in the
NVLP Collection of
African American
Oral Histories at the
Library of Congress
American Folklife
As the focus of the SCLC turned to voter registration and black political involvement in the 1970’s, Lowery worked to elect former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee member Julian Bond to the George state legislature.  In 1977, Lowery became president of SCLC and began to speak out against human rights violations in South Africa.  In the 1990’s, SCLC focused on economic justice.  Lowery believed the elimination of poverty would solve problems such as drug abuse and crime.  He led SCLC’s Stop the Killing/End the Violence Campaign, a gun buy-back program that removed over 12,000 guns from circulation.  In 1997, Lowery stepped down as SCLC president and was succeeded by Martin Luther King III.

Lowery is the recipient of honorary degrees from Clark College, Morehouse College and Atlanta University among others.  He also received the medal for Outstanding Professional Service in the Field of Civil and Human Rights from George Washington University.  He is the co-founder and chairman emeritus of the Black Leadership Forum, a consortium of national advocacy organizations.



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