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At 89, Civil Rights Icon Reflects On Faith And Activism

Joseph Lowery

First Posted: 02/17/11 10:19 PM ET Updated: 05/25/11 07:35 PM ET

By Adelle M. Banks
Religion News Service

(RNS) The Rev. Joseph Lowery, the civil rights activist who worked alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., has always combined his work on secular causes with a sacred message.

At age 89, the retired United Methodist pastor has written his first book, Singing the Lord's Song in a Strange Land, in which he shares sermons and memories of his work on race relations and human rights.

Some comments have been edited for length and clarity.

As one of the more well-known living leaders of the civil rights movement, do you feel you have a particular responsibility to continue its message with those who come after you?

Every generation ought to take the fight just a little closer to the goal. And I think I have a responsibility to do all I can to make it clear and to facilitate their witness.

Your book is filled with sermons you have preached over the years. How important were sermons for motivating and achieving the goals of the civil rights movement?

We've always been spiritually oriented. Dr. King said make it plain that we are rooted in the faith, and that without the basis in God and religion and spirituality we would not be who we are. That's why I've always had no difficulty mixing. I didn't divide the world between sacred and secular. I think that it's all sacred, all God's world and all God's will.

You spoke of the sacrifices of working for equal rights, including your wife who barely avoided being shot during a demonstration in Alabama. Did you ever think of stopping your work because of the danger?

If we did, it was only a fleeting moment. It didn't last long because we didn't think we had any choice. It was a calling.

You often say that despite the accomplishments in race relations, there's a ways to go. What are the most important goals still to be accomplished?

We're still only 60-some percent of the median income, 10 percent of the net worth. I think there's a little bit of a new kind of slavery under the criminal justice system. We are jailing black men -- and now women -- far out of proportion to the population, and it's going to
impact our future.

You wrote that Christians who don't vote aren't good Christians. Why do you feel that way?

We can't love each other if we deny each other opportunity and rights, and voting is a sacred part of that. We are just as wrong to neglect the vote as they are wrong who would deny us the vote.

You wrote that white people, including a Christian woman who hated not being able to serve you in a restaurant, were changed by the movement. What did that mean to you?

I think it indicates the comprehensive nature of the movement. The movement freed everybody. You can't keep a person in a ditch without part of you staying down with them. When we got out of the ditch we freed white folks -- our oppressors -- from having to stay in the ditch. She was saying I want to serve you. I want to pay for your meal. What she was saying was "I'm free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, I'm free at last!"

You got into a little trouble for your comments at Coretta Scott King's funeral, when you spoke of "weapons of misdirection" just feet way from George W. Bush. Do you think some don't understand black church funerals?

At a funeral we celebrate the life that we are mourning, but we also challenge the people who remain. If you really want to honor this person's life don't stop at just mourning. Pick up the mantle. And that's what we were trying to do at Coretta's funeral.

You seem concerned that people are too sentimental about King. Are people not remembering him or his message the way you would like?

I think they're remembering him more than they are the message, and I think we got to learn to do both. I think we are celebrating the preacher but we are minimizing the sermon and the message. It is good to exalt the missionary, but we got to remember the mission as well.

What do you think about the future of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which you founded with King, now that his daughter, Bernice King, has chosen not to be its president?

I think it's in deep trouble. It's got new leadership again. I'm hopeful because I think there's a need for an SCLC. SCLC was an independent moral force that was good for the country. I'd like to see it survive. Whether it will or not, we just have to pray.

You prayed at President Obama's inauguration and you received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Is your work mostly completed now?

Our work is never done. A Christian's work is never done. The spiritual says we've always got "one more river to cross."

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Filed by Josh Fleet  |