National Community Service Award:
The Reverend Dr. Joseph E. Lowery
Hailed as the “dean of the Civil Rights Movement,” the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery is a founding member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and served as its president from 1977 to 1997. For more than 50 years, Rev. Lowery has been an unwavering champion of nonviolent resistance.
Born in Huntsville, Ala., Rev. Lowery received his bachelor’s degree from Paine College in Augusta, Ga. in 1943. He also received a bachelor of divinity from Paine Theological Seminary in Ohio, and a doctorate of divinity from Chicago Ecumenical Institute.
After graduating from seminary in 1950, he was ordained as a Methodist minister and received his first assignment in Mobile, Ala.
In 1955, Lowery led a successful drive against the segregated bus system in Mobile. Hoping to build upon this and other victories, Lowery and other Black southern ministers met in Atlanta at the Ebenezer Baptist Church to form an organization that would supply the Civil Rights Movement with sustaining leadership.
The result was the creation of the SCLC; Martin Luther King, Jr. was elected president and Lowery, vice president. Under the leadership of King and Lowery, the SCLC marched toward the goal of equality for African Americans. However, Lowery's commitment to achieving this goal was tested in 1959 when Lowery, Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth and Solomon Seay were sued for libel by the state of Alabama. Though innocent, the four ministers were found guilty and ordered to pay $3 million. Much of Lowery's personal property was seized. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed this ruling in 1964. Along with fellow activists Lowery was subjected to violence from the police and militia—notably, during the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery—and was imprisoned many times.
In 1977, Rev. Lowery was elected as president of SCLC. During his tenure at SCLC, Lowery negotiated with major corporations for employment advances and business contracts for minority businesses, and led peaceful protests against environmental injustices and voter disenfranchisement in the United States and internationally.
Since his retirement from his pastorate and SCLC, Reverend Lowery has remained active in civic affairs, still fighting the battle for equality. As the convener of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, he played a crucial role in the successful effort to modify the design of Georgia's state flag, helped black farmers settle a discrimination suit in federal court against the United States Department of Agriculture, and assisted black auto dealers seeking redress from discrimination by auto manufacturers. Rev. Lowery continues to provide the prophetic voice for election reform and voter empowerment, homosexual rights, economic and environmental justice, and criminal justice reform.
In honor of Dr. Lowery’s work on behalf of humanity and in celebration of his 80th birthday in 2001, Clark Atlanta University established the Joseph E. Lowery Institute for Justice and Human Rights that provides a forum for dialogue and a research laboratory for human rights issues. During this same celebration, the Atlanta Board of Education established an annual Joseph E. Lowery Lecture Series on civic participation, and the Atlanta City Council changed the name of Ashby Street to Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard.
One of Lowery’s greatest honors recognizing his lifetime commitment to civil rights was the receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest United States civilian honor bestowed by President Barack Obama on August 12, 2009. In addition to this honor, Dr. Lowery delivered the benediction at the inaugural ceremony of Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States on Jan. 20, 2009.
Rev. Lowery is married to Evelyn Gibson Lowery, civil rights activist and founder of SCLCW.O.M.E.N. They have five children.