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."
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.
Those years were filled with marches, like the one in 1979 when a group of robed Klansmen in Decatur, Ala., opened fire on Lowery and others protesting the imprisonment of a mentally retarded black youth charged with raping a white woman. Lowery escaped the barrage of bullets without a scratch. Several hit his wife's car, but she, too, was unharmed. A decade later the Klansmen agreed to a lawsuit settlement that required them to attend a course on brotherly love taught by Lowery.
In the 1980s, he and his wife also protested in front of companies that refused to divest from South Africa and at the site of a hazardous waste dumping ground in a predominantly black town in North Carolina. In the 1990s, they held "No Drugs, No Thugs" rallies and collected guns in black neighborhoods.
Much of that work never made it to the daily news pages, which chafes Lowery, who says the media thought "the movement died with Martin."
Lowery has never stopped hearing from people looking for justice.
At his office in the historic Atlanta Life Insurance Building and along with far-flung requests for tickets to Obama's inauguration that Lowery can't provide, his in-box recently included a 10-page handwritten letter that began, "I'm a born-again Christian in prison for a crime I didn't commit." Lowery has received hundreds of similar letters. He now turns them over to the criminal justice committee of the Georgia Coalition for the People's Agenda, which he heads.
"His work was not only in the pulpit but in the streets," says Harvard Law professor and civil rights lawyer Charles Ogletree. "He really is the dean of the black clergy in America, [and] has always been a person to speak his mind. We saw that in his very direct comments to President Bush at Coretta Scott King's funeral."
Lowery took flak from many after the funeral speech in which he criticized the war on Iraq and social policies with a rhyming line about weapons of mass destruction and weapons of mass deception. Bush was sitting on the stage behind Lowery as the preacher doled out the criticism, but even the president seemed touched by Lowery's ability to deliver medicine with a spoonful of honey. Lowery's tone was neither sour nor angry.
Bush hugged Lowery as he left the podium.
Lowery condemns Bush's policies but doesn't hesitate to add: "I give him credit. Not one Democrat has appointed two back-to-back black secretaries of state."
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Lowery says his decision to support Obama was made the day in March 2007 that both men were in Selma for the 42nd anniversary of the "Bloody Sunday" march. The preacher and politician locked arms as they marched, and Lowery was on the dais as Obama spoke at a church.
In his remarks, Obama referred to civil rights elders as the "Moses generation" who paved the way for himself and other members of the "Joshua generation."
"I could see then that he had a reverence for the past and a vision for the future," Lowery says. "I had a candidate."
During sensitive periods of the campaign -- including controversial remarks made by Obama's former pastor Jeremiah Wright and comments made by prominent black politicians that Obama was not ready to be president -- Lowery was a rock, Obama advisers say.
Jarrett says Lowery was "a very astute counselor and adviser to [Obama]. He was forthcoming with the president-elect, and he was never shy about telling the president-elect what he thought on any issue. He has the kind of confidence that comes with the wisdom of age."
Lowery was constantly challenging the early notions about Obama in the black community when barbershop conversations centered on such questions as "Is he black enough?" Lowery sparred with other Atlanta civil rights leaders including congressman John Lewis, who had endorsed Hillary Clinton's candidacy, and former mayor Andrew Young, who said Obama wasn't ready.
"Some people felt like they owed the Clintons. I never felt like I owed anybody anything," Lowery says.
He heaps praise on Obama, but he also tells churchgoers not to put away their marching shoes. Black median income is still only two-thirds of white median income, he says, and blacks are disproportionately caught up in the criminal justice system.
"The color of power must change, but the character of the struggle must stay constant," Lowery says. "I guarantee I'm going to get mad at Obama. I already don't like some of his appointments, but I trust him. . . . We are going to be advocating with Brother Obama. He's not a civil rights leader. He's president."
Lowery, who supports civil unions, has already spoken out about Obama's controversial selection of the Rev. Rick Warren to give the inaugural invocation, which has been protested by gay rights groups because of disparaging comments Warren has made about gays and his support of the California proposition to ban same-sex marriage.
"I understand the protesters and I disagree vehemently with some of the nasty things Brother Warren said about gay people. I support civil rights for all citizens. I don't think you can fragment civil rights," Lowery says. "I have also said to gay groups, 'If y'all can stop talking about marriage and start talking about civil unions it would change things.' The concept of marriage is so embedded in my soul as being between a man and a woman."
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Lowery has been working his inaugural prayer over in his mind. But he had not yet put pen to paper when he got a call two weeks ago from Obama's religious affairs director, Joshua DuBois, to tell him he will have two minutes on the inaugural stage.
Lowery asked first how long Warren would get. DuBois said the opening prayer has also been allotted two minutes.
When Lowery hung up the phone and told his secretary, they both burst out laughing.
"Have you ever said a prayer in two minutes?" she asked.
"I've never tried," Lowery said, smiling, "but they can't turn the mike off on me."