ATLANTA (Reuters) - As one of the last survivors of the U.S. civil rights movement’s original leadership, Joseph Lowery would have been forgiven had he retired gracefully to bask in the role he played in history 50 years ago.
Instead, the 82-year-old remains a dedicated activist, organizing rallies and marches, fighting for unpopular causes and taking every opportunity to challenge powerful people including U.S. President George W. Bush whose views and policies he opposes.
Lowery first met Martin Luther King when they were both young pastors in Alabama in the early 1950s.
The two men founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957 along with pastors Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth and other activists. Celebrations for its 50th anniversary start on Friday.
Lowery’s enduring commitment makes him a point of reference for other activists and he frequently challenges a younger generation for whom civil rights is a chapter in history books.
It also gives a clue as to how the career of Martin Luther King might have evolved had he not been assassinated in 1968.
“People continue to talk about a post-civil rights era, which implies we have won. We have won some battles but there is still a war,” he said in an interview.
Lowery led the SCLC for two decades starting in 1977. He has also set up the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, which campaigns largely for local issues. But a speech last year brought him renewed national attention.
At the funeral for King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, Lowery castigated Bush over Iraq while the president and his wife Laura sat in the audience.
“We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over there. But Coretta knew and we know that there are weapons of misdirection right down here,” he said.
The speech was criticized as inappropriate given the setting. But Lowery defends it.
“I would never have been able to look in the mirror had I missed that opportunity to witness for truth. I was representing the civil rights community and talking about Coretta’s life. What was I going to talk about? Wine and roses?” he said.
“WHY DID I LIVE?”
The SCLC campaigned for voting rights and an end to the brutal system of segregation in the U.S. South through marches, boycotts and sit-ins.
In the process it provided a platform for King under whose leadership the movement put pressure on the government that resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.
But King was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee, in April 1968. Abernathy died in 1990 and most other founders of the SCLC have also died.
Inevitably, that has led Lowery to reflect both on his own friendship with the man who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and on the role he has played since King’s death.
“Martin was the most unique person I ever met. He was intelligence on fire in the heart and head. He could walk with kings and presidents and shoot pool with the boys on the street corner,” Lowery said.
“(But) he used to say in private that he wouldn’t live till 40 and he died at 39,” he said. “Why did the Lord let me live? I didn’t think the Lord let me stay because I’ve been so good, that I’ve been so wise. If I stop fighting for justice maybe he’s going to bring me home.”
Lowery’s recent causes include a campaign to release Genarlow Wilson, sentenced in 2005 to 10 years in prison in Georgia for having oral sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was 17.
The case reflects Lowery’s concern for criminal justice reform. But he also preached in June at a revival meeting at singer Aretha Franklin’s church in Detroit and introduced Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois when he spoke in Atlanta in April.
Lowery says he supports Obama’s candidacy.
Obama and former U.S. President Bill Clinton, whose wife is battling Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination, will likely praise Lowery’s leadership role at the 50th anniversary celebration of the SCLC, of which he is president emeritus.
But Lowery remains suspicious of the process of mythologizing the civil rights movement and King’s life because it tends to soften its militancy and deflect attention from current challenges.
“Now that he (King) is safely dead, let us praise him,” he said. “Dead men make such convenient heroes. Besides it’s easier to build a monument than a movement.”
The “‘I Have a Dream’ (speech) is all you hear. ... It troubles me,” Lowery said in reference to King’s electrifying 1963 address to some 250,000 people gathered in Washington.
“America says that it’s rejoicing at its commitment. But there is an unfinished commitment.”
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