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

The men and women in the pews jumped to their feet. Some snapped pictures of Lowery with their camera phones throughout the sermon. Others waited nearly a half-hour after the church service to shake his hand and, with a glint in his eye, he smiled and thanked each one.

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Born in Huntsville, Ala., Lowery grew up with a small Methodist church just across a vacant lot next to his childhood home. His father owned small businesses, and his mother taught school part time.

"I went to church so much, I swore once I got grown I would never go back to church, [but] the church became a part of me," Lowery says.

He retired from pastoring full time a decade ago, but his sermons are as sharp as ever. He leans on a cane when he walks and had spinal surgery late last year to deal with a condition called central canal stenosis that threatened his ability to walk. He still dresses in stylish suits and sweaters. His gray hair and mustache are neatly trimmed.

He campaigned for Obama by doing what he does best: preaching in black churches. His sermons in South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia and North Carolina often included an anecdote about a conversation with his doctor about his cholesterol that led to a call for "good crazy" voters willing to believe a black man could be elected president.

"I'm glad he reminded me that there's good cholesterol and there's bad cholesterol," Lowery says. "Like cholesterol, there's a good crazy and a bad crazy. When Harriet Tubman was running up and down the Underground Railroad, she was crazy but it was a good crazy! When Paul preached to Agrippa, they said, 'Paul, you're crazy,' but it was a good crazy! You can't tell what will happen when you have some good crazy folks going to vote."

Lowery preached that message in a half-dozen states on Obama's behalf and always added, "In the movement everybody was a little crazy." Lowery's role in the movement was as an influential pastor, a skilled speaker and gifted leader.

He was a member of the SCLC board and traveled often to meet with King and other leaders of the organization, helping to steer the course, providing advice and participating in the major protests at the height of the South's racial unrest.

One night in 1963, only a last-minute decision to take the late-night train home to see his wife in Nashville saved Lowery's life when the Birmingham hotel room that King had offered him for the night was bombed. In 1965, King named Lowery chairman of the committee appointed to take protesters' demands to segregationist Gov. George Wallace at the end of the "Bloody Sunday" march from Selma to Montgomery.

And Lowery was one of the four preachers who were sued in the seminal case of the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, in which an Alabama official accused the newspaper and the civil rights leaders of libel. The Supreme Court vindicated the ministers in a landmark ruling, but not before Lowery's 1958 Chrysler Imperial sedan and other property were seized in Mobile.

Lowery's stature and reputation have grown with his work over time and as he skirted death where it caught others. He took the helm of the SCLC after King's death, serving as a vice president and then president from 1977 to 1997. When Lowery took over, his wife, Evelyn, carved out a broader role to recognize women's contributions to the movement and founded an SCLC women's branch.


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