The Rev. Joseph Lowery Preaches Obama's Gospel of Change

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 14, 2009

ATLANTA The Rev. Joseph Lowery preaches an old wisdom that makes church folks laugh and hits them upside the head at the same time. He begins most sermons by saying to the men and women applauding in the pews: "Thank you. Now, sit down before I take up an offering."

Then Lowery, 87, might launch a social critique on some of what ails the black community, telling them some "still have a slave mentality. . . . You're not free because you do what you want to do. You're free when you do what you ought to do."

Or he goes on to challenge perceptions of the civil rights movement by talking about Martin Luther King Jr., with whom he co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957.

"They have made Martin a glorified social worker, and they have almost made our young folks believe that all Martin did was go around dreaming," Lowery says. "He was a nonviolent militant. He was a Christian radical."

He titled his last sermon of 2008 "The Four Fathers," and delivered it while sitting on a stool behind the big wooden pulpit at Antioch Baptist Church North, describing how George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, King and Barack Obama have all ushered in new American eras.

"For white folks in the South to vote for a black man as president is drastic. This is revolutionary," Lowery says. "The Democratic Party can take credit, but the Democrats didn't do it. God did it. God was in the plan. Nobody else could have gotten these white folks to vote for a Negro named Barack Obama."

Lowery is a breathing testament to the nation's journey from the rule of Jim Crow to the presidency of Barack Obama, for whom Lowery will give the closing prayer at the inaugural ceremony. He will stand as one of the few Americans with the authority to place the young president-elect's narrative in the context of civil rights history.

"He is the best surviving link to [King] with Mrs. King gone, with [Ralph] Abernathy gone," says David Garrow, the civil rights historian. "If part of what Obama . . . wants to do is make a symbolic link back to the King movement of the '60s, then Reverend Lowery is without question the best person with whom to do that."

Lowery's life and work have been built on his oratory, and he saw in Obama a young man whose words tapped into the heartbeat of the people -- just like the well-known speeches of the civil rights movement. Lowery gave his endorsement in early 2007 when Obama was still proving his bona fides with blacks and other old-school black leaders were wavering. During the long campaign, Lowery became a key source of support and symbolism for Obama and many on his team.

"He was instrumental in galvanizing support for us. . . . At the end of the day I was exhausted, and he was saying why don't we go to another church," says Valerie Jarrett, Obama's friend and incoming White House senior adviser. "In the span of his lifetime, he has seen the United States transform. Never despite all of the adversity he has seen in his life did he ever give up hope in our country. That is why a man of his age was able to see the potential in a Barack Obama so early."

During the sermon at Antioch Baptist, Lowery sprinkled in tales of King with details about his tight relationship with the president-elect, telling the church that Obama called him a few weeks ago. "I missed the call, so I called him back on his cellphone . . . and I said I'm looking for the 44th president of the United States."

He recalled Obama saying, " 'Brother Lowery, I believe you've got him.' Both us fell to silence the minute that he said it. Because it dawned on me and him that he was right. I did have him."

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