Saying Goodbye to a Warrior Priest in a Pandemic

March 28, 2020 0 By Michael

Civil Rights trailblazer Rev. Dr. Joseph E. Lowery, March 28, 2017, leaving the Cascade United Methodist following the memorial service for Ralph Worrell. © 2017 Harold Michael Harvey

It’s written that it is “hard to say goodbye to yesterday.” But yesterday, Rev. Dr. Joesph Echols Lowery, in a death not related to Covid-19, moved from here to eternity.

Until yesterday, he was one of the few remaining architects of the civil rights movement that challenged and forced the cessation of the unequal treatment of Black people in the United States. This movement vicariously brought about equality to all minority groups in the country, including white women, or at least with more justice than had existed at the dawn of the 20th century. He was a man of the 20th century and was blessed to live until the 20th year of the 21st century.

Lowery’s passing pushed the civil rights triumphs further back into the yesterdays. Today’s up and coming young leaders shun the strategies of the Lowerys, Kings, and Abernathys, without realizing their significant accomplishments are the platform that launched today’s push for equality.

Dr. Lowery is one of the few civil rights leaders that I was fortunate to work alongside in the great struggle for civil rights for people of color in the US.

I first met him in 1977. He was 56 years old, in the prime of life, and the heir to the mantle of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rev. Ralph David Abernathy. I was 26 years old, still wet behind the ears, a community activist, and a newspaper reporter covering the city hall beat in Macon, Georgia, for the Macon Courier.

Several Black radicals, Herbert Dennard, Rev. Dr. Henry Ficklin, and Robert Brown, contacted Tyrone Brooks, field director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. They asked him if Dr. Lowery could come to Macon and lead a movement for jobs.

Former SCLC Field Director Tyrone Brooks convinced Dr. Lowery to wage a campaign for jobs in Macon, Georgia in 1977. ©2019 Harold Michael Harvey

Lowery agreed to come. Sidney Hill, a reporter with The Macon Telegraph, and I had gained the confidence of the local leadership. The leadership allowed us into the inner sanctum with Dr. Lowery as they planned a non-violent demonstration in Macon.

Following the first two meetings both Hill and I wrote stories in our respective papers about the impending demonstration. 

On Lowery’s third visit, he gave us an ultimatum. Either we join the group as co-conspirators planning a non-violent march or remain journalists and leave the planning sessions. He said he welcomed publicity about SCLC’s involvement in the Macon community, but that he did not want the strategy of the group to get out where provocateurs could derail the march.

This was a valuable lesson learned.

Hill came from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. But I was educated in the James Baldwin school of journalism. Baldwin believed that the writer’s first responsibility was to be a witness, then tell no better than he or she had seen.

We both decided to take off our reporters’ hats and remain in the planning sessions.

On the appointed day, the march came off like clock-work. It started on the outskirts of downtown Macon and ended in front of the county courthouse. Dr. Lowery gave a rousing speech. He said he came to “Bring the bacon to Macon.”

Within weeks of Lowery’s “Bring the Bacon to Macon” march, Citizens and Southern National Bank hired its first Black teller, and several car dealerships hired their first Black sales personnel. Macon businesses saw an increase of Blacks in its workforce. The City of Macon began to hire more Blacks for the police force. Suddenly, from that one visit from Dr. Lowery, opportunities once closed for centuries to members of Macon’s Black community were opened. 

Life moved on. I followed Lowery’s advocacy on behalf of the forgotten American. 

In 1978 he spoke out against the Supreme Court decision in the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, a case that struck down the use of quotas to fill slots in admissions to higher education. The use of quotas made sure that minorities received jobs, promotions, and admission to historically predominant white colleges and universities. 

In 1980, Lowery pushed back on President Ronald Reagan’s conservative policies, declaring, in the face of Reagan’s safety net cutbacks, that “We are not going to allow you to turn the clock back.”

In 1982, as a second-year law student, I was called on to brief the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan case. A case argued before the Supreme Court in 1963. It found its way to the court when L. B. Sullivan, the Police Commissioner for Montgomery, Alabama sued Dr. Lowery and three other Black ministers alleging they defamed him in the publication of an ad placed in the New York Times that alleged the police had mistreated Dr. King. 

The Sullivan case held for the proposition that a citizen has a protected First Amendment right to criticize a public official as long as the critique did not grow out of “actual malice.” I smiled that night knowing that I had direct contact with a man who had fought for the right of the public to call out a public official. Young lions of Judah today, who decry the tactics used in yesteryear, do not realize that their right to call out public officials at the top of their lungs was secured by an old man when he was their age.

Two decades passed before our paths would cross again. 

In 1996, Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell announced that Black college students were not welcome in Atlanta during the third weekend in April. Students from the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities had started flooding the streets of Atlanta for a spring break festival dubbed Freaknik. Campbell made it clear that students would be subject to arrest and conviction if they became disorderly.

That year, I was President-Elect of the Gate City Bar Association. I convinced the President to sponsor free legal representation for any student arrested and charged with violating a city ordinance. 

When Roxanne Gregory, in-house counsel for SCLC, heard about Gate City’s efforts, she reached out to me to form a partnership. We teamed up. SCLC with the backing of Dr. Lowery provided the foot soldiers who monitored police activity on the ground. She would in return relay information to me, embedded inside the Atlanta City jail regarding students who were arrested. I would find them, interview them and begin the process of obtaining a bond for them.  

Following the Freaknik weekend, I told a reporter for the Fulton County Daily Report that over the weekend “the streets of Atlanta looked like Birmingham to me.”

That remark caused Dr. Lowery to call my office and summon me to a meeting in his office. 

I walked from my office in Peachtree Center down to the SCLC headquarters on Auburn Avenue. I was ushered into Dr. Lowery’s office, which had been the office of Dr. King. I got goosebumps when I crossed the threshold into the civil right’s fiefdom. 

“I read your comments in the paper the other day,” Lowery said.

“You did?”

“How old were you when we were in Birmingham?”

“About 12 or 13.”

“I tell you, young man, it may have been bad out there this weekend, but it couldn’t have been as bad as Birmingham, I just can’t believe that,” he said.

Then he added: “You have to be careful not to distract from the hard-fought battles of the movement.”

“Yes, Sir,” I replied.

Another lesson learned, given 20 years after the first one, from the Master in civil rights struggles.

On March 28, 2017, Dr. Lowery posed for a group photo with members of the SCLC family. He had just delivered the eulogy for Ralph Worrell, a 56 year veteran of SCLC. Perhaps, this was SCLC’s opportunity to say goodbye to a Warrior Priest. © 2017 Harold Michael Harvey

Shortly after Lowery retired as President of SCLC, I closed my law practice and went back to working at the writer’s trade. Despite living about one-half mile from him, I did not see very much of him in the past few years. As he aged, I did not want to intrude on his precious time. I would drive by his home and lift up a silent prayer. 

It would be good to have a memorial service, where a grateful community could come together and say goodbye to a Warrior Priest. But this is not likely, inasmuch as the City of Atlanta is on lockdown waiting for the Covdid-19 curve to flatten. 

Thank you, Doc for all you have taught me, and for all you have done for humankind. You are forever my elder. Evelyn, Martin, and Ralph have waited a long time for this reunion. I will see you on the other side.

Harold Michael Harvey is the author of Freaknik Lawyer: A Memoir on the Craft of Resistance. He is a Past President of the Gate City Bar Association. He is the recipient of Gate City’s R. E. Thomas Civil Rights Award, which he received for his pro bono representation of Black college students arrested during Freaknik celebrations in the mid to late 1990s. An avid public speaker, contact him at hmharvey@haroldmichaelharvey.com.