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January 16, 2009

Lowery reflects on past, future civil rights struggles

Kicking off the University’s week-long celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, civil rights activist Reverend Joseph Lowery delivered the keynote speech at Rockefeller Chapel Thursday. Bookended by performances from student gospel choir Soul Umoja, the Reverend’s address shed light on King’s character, and reflected on present and future civil rights struggles, as well as the kind of message King’s day should promote.

Lowery eschewed the podium and sat before the attentive crowd, whose members braved negative temperatures to hear the famous civil rights activist speak. He joked about the “outstanding” weather, lamenting King for having a birthday in January when “90 percent of my invitations are in parts of the country with this kind of weather—not all that pleasant for an Alabama/Georgia boy.”

Lowery was a close friend to King, helping lead the 1955 Montgomery bus boycotts and the march to Selma from Montgomery in 1965. He co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) with King in 1957 and served as its president from 1977 to 1997, while embarking on campaigns to end South African apartheid, promote civil unions for same-sex couples, and encourage minority-run businesses.

He spoke fondly of King as a humble hero. “Martin always was more comfortable being a servant than being served,” he said, but added that King had a steely resolve. “There was a fire in his belly that fire hoses couldn’t wash out...and, thank goodness, money couldn’t buy out,” Lowery said, to murmurs of agreement in the audience.

Lowery returned often to the modern celebration of King’s birthday, arguing that while community service in King’s name is admirable, the late activist’s true message was always social change, not just social service.

“It’s good to help an old lady cross the street on Martin’s birthday,” he said, “but while you’re at it, check to see if the street is paved.”

Reverend Lowery is noted for his refusal to shy away from commenting on current events; he sparked controversy in 2006 by criticizing the Bush administration during the funeral service for Coretta Scott King, the late wife of King. True to form, on Thursday he decried the criminal justice system, warned against jumping to military solutions abroad, and criticized the latest presidential campaigns for ignoring the problem of poverty.

But his address also often took a more personal note. Listeners applauded Lowery’s wry stories of his early days campaigning in Birmingham and Nashville, staging his own protest for the desegregation of a hamburger joint close to his downtown office in Nashville.

“I’d come in there every day and ask for a hamburger,” he said. “The waitress would say, ‘We don’t serve Negroes here.’ I’d say, ‘I didn’t order a Negro.’”

At last, he said, when legislation barred restaurant segregation, he came back to order a hamburger, and the same waitress offered to pay for it to make up for all the times she had told him no.

The 87-year-old Lowery has recently been tapped to deliver the benediction at Barack Obama’s inauguration next week. His only mention of the ceremony was to remark that he and two others speaking at the inauguration—Rick Warren and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts—have been sued by an atheist group seeking to bar references to God at the ceremony.

“They asked me who my lawyer was. I said, ‘I don’t need one, not if Justice Roberts is being sued with me,’” he said to laughter.