Joseph Lowery, civil rights leader and MLK aide, dies at 98

WASHINGTON, DC – AUGUST 28: The Rev. Joseph Lowery speaks during the Let Freedom Ring ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial August 28, 2013 in Washington, DC. The event was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

ATLANTA (AP) — The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery fought to end segregation, lived to see the election of the country’s first black president and echoed the call for “justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” in America.

For more than four decades after the death of his friend and civil rights icon, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the fiery Alabama preacher was on the front line of the battle for equality, with an unforgettable delivery that rivaled King’s — and was often more unpredictable. Lowery had a knack for cutting to the core of the country’s conscience with commentary steeped in scripture, refusing to back down whether the audience was a Jim Crow racist or a U.S. president.

“We ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back; when brown can stick around; when yellow will be mellow; when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right,” Lowery prayed at President Barack Obama’s inaugural benediction in 2009.

Lowery, 98, died Friday at home in Atlanta, surrounded by family members, they said in a statement.

He died from natural causes unrelated to the coronavirus outbreak, the statement said.

“Tonight, the great Reverend Joseph E. Lowery transitioned from earth to eternity,” The King Center in Atlanta remembered Lowery in a Friday night tweet. “He was a champion for civil rights, a challenger of injustice, a dear friend to the King family.”

Lowery led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for two decades — restoring the organization’s financial stability and pressuring businesses not to trade with South Africa’s apartheid-era regime — before retiring in 1997.

Considered the dean of civil rights veterans, he lived to celebrate a November 2008 milestone that few of his movement colleagues thought they would ever witness — the election of an African-American president.

At an emotional victory celebration for President-elect Barack Obama in Atlanta, Lowery said, “America tonight is in the process of being born again.”

An early and enthusiastic supporter of Obama over then-Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, Lowery also gave the benediction at Obama’s inauguration.

“We thank you for the empowering of thy servant, our 44th president, to inspire our nation to believe that, yes, we can work together to achieve a more perfect union,” he said.

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