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Joseph Lowery

Fighting for Racial Justice Since the 1950s

July 07, 1996|Eric Harrison | Eric Harrison is the Atlanta bureau chief for The Times

ATLANTA — The modest Atlanta headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference haven't changed much in the last 30 years--and neither has the Rev. Joseph Lowery, the organization's president since 1977. An SCLC co-founder, Lowery rose to prominence in the 1950s, when the burning issues for African Americans were school integration, voting rights and equal access to public accommodations.

Today's issues are far more complex, yet Lowery soldiers on, armed with tactics and a mind-set that some critics deride as outdated. Like his cramped office and vintage desk--which once belonged to SCLC's first president, Martin Luther King Jr.--the 73-year-old Lowery is of another era.

Still, he gets results. Wielding threats of boycotts, he negotiated $125-million and $150-million agreements, respectively, with Publix Supermarkets and Shoney's restaurants calling for the companies to hire African American vendors and managers and locate businesses in black neighborhoods.

Negotiated victories such as these command less attention than did the battles of the 1950s and 1960s. America is a different place. But the rash of black church fires across the South--evoking as they do memories of 1960s-era anti-civil rights violence--has revived the specter of racial hatred that divided the country then.

Recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings and initiatives in California and elsewhere have curbed affirmative action and other programs designed to level the playing field. Ever since Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, civil rights leaders have decried efforts to "turn back the clock." In Newt Gingrich's America, the revolution continues, setting the stage, some say, for a resurgence of racial animosity. Lowery, an avuncular, retired Methodist minister, who is married to the former Evelyn Gibson and has three daughters and eight grandchildren, has seen it all before.

Last year, 30 years after the police beat activists as they began to walk from Selma to Montgomery to campaign for integration, aging heroes of the movement reenacted the historic march. Former Alabama Gov. George Wallace snubbed them in 1965. This time, he met with them to apologize. Remembering that Lowery, in a face-to-face meeting, once told him his rhetoric incited violence, the wheelchair-ridden Wallace told the civil rights leader he had been right. "I say to the demagogues, 'You ought to listen to George,' " Lowery says.


Question: What does it say about the state of race relations that people are still burning black churches in 1996?

Answer: One thing it says is that we have created a 51st state--the state of denial. This country is in serious denial about its race relations. The church fires have sort of pulled the cover off. That's why there's a continuum of: "It's really not racial. There's no conspiracy." Now the new thing is: "There are just as many white churches that have been burned as black churches." We don't want to face the fact that there is a deep-seated, pervasive racism in this country.

My own theory is that I don't believe it is any one organization. I wish it were. It would be a lot simpler to deal with from every perspective. But there is a cultural conspiracy. There's an attitudinal conspiracy and hostility against black folk. Political demagogues have created a climate that lends itself to hostility by confused, misdirected people against black folk--and women, and welfare programs and affirmative action. There are a lot of white guys in the country whose anger is directed toward federal buildings or the federal government itself, others against the symbol of black advocacy--the church.

For the first time in while, white folk have to cope with economic uncertainty. That's a new diet for them. For us it's par for the course . . . . But for white folks, it's different. And they've been led to believe that the reason is affirmative action, reverse discrimination . . . .

Q: Do you think there is any legitimacy in the anger that white males feel?

A: Yeah, there's legitimacy. It's just the wrong target. We all ought to be angry at a system where 1% percent of the people control 40% of the wealth . . . .

Why does Pete Wilson have an initiative against affirmative action? Why do trustees of the universities find it necessary to take out any racial consideration? What they're saying to white kids who are not getting into colleges is, "This is why you didn't get in. The black kids got in. This is why you can't get a job. Affirmative action got your job." Completely denying the fact that there aren't enough jobs . . . .

Yeah, he ought to be angry, but he ought not to be angry with me. Direct it toward the system so we can change it. If he'd lock arms with us we could change it overnight . . . . That's what Martin [Luther King Jr.] was trying to do in the Poor People's Campaign--get white folks to join us in the attempt . . . .

Q: In your view, is there room for compromise in efforts to reform welfare or make changes in affirmative action?

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