February 12th, 2011
06:00 AM ET
By John Blake, CNN
The voice that rhymed at President Obama’s inauguration, rebuked George W. Bush at a nationally televised funeral and thundered from the pulpit is weaker now.
When the Rev. Joseph Lowery answered the phone from his home in Atlanta, Georgia, this week, he spoke in a gravelly voice not much louder than a whisper.
At 89, the civil rights legend chuckled when asked if he was back at 100 percent after suffering a stroke last year.
“No I’m not back at a 100 percent,” he said with a trace of exasperation. Then his voice softened. “But the Lord is good. I’m doing well.”
Lowery is still preaching. On Sunday, he’ll deliver a sermon at an Atlanta church and sign copies of his new memoir, “Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land.”
He has plenty of stories to tell. He co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He’s been an eyewitness to many of the country’s most celebrated civil rights campaigns. And he led the SCLC from 1977 to 1997, still taking a bullhorn to the streets well into his 70s.
Lowery grabbed headlines in recent years because of two public addresses. At the 2006 funeral for Coretta Scott King, widow of the legendary civil rights leader, Lowery rebuked then President George W. Bush for the Iraq invasion while the president stood behind him.
And at President Obama’s 2009 inauguration, Lowery delivered a memorable benediction that ended with a folksy ditty:
Lowery recently spoke to CNN about Obama, race and the SCLC. King's daughter, Bernice King, was elected SCLC president in 2009 but decided not to accept the position last month after a prolonged power struggle among group leaders split the group into different factions. Here's a partial transcript of that conversation:
CNN: Has your recent illness changed you in any way?
Lowery: When you have a serious illness, you begin to think about life from a different perspective. I still trust the Lord. I’m at peace.
CNN: Is racism different today?
Lowery: It’s not as bold as it once was. People are recognizing it’s not the thing to do anymore so they put it under other labels and names. Racism is still around. Racism by any other names is just as mean and just as hurtful.
CNN: How has racism affected Obama’s first two years in office?
Lowery: There’s not any question that I think there’s a counterrevolution occurring among people who have not adjusted to the fact that we have an African American president.
The majority of voters responded to Martin's [Luther King Jr.] summons, which he delivered in 1963, to climb out of the pits of race and color to the higher ground of the content of character.
But there are those who haven’t been able to accept it. They seldom come out and put it on race. They use other means and causes. Deep down, we know that there are a lot of people who can’t accept a black man as president.
CNN: Has anything about Obama’s leadership surprised you?
Lowery: I expected him to give good leadership. He hasn’t done anything that has disappointed me in any way. He’s had to deal with a terrible recession that he had no responsibility for creating. I think he’s done well.
CNN: What’s happened to the SCLC?
Lowery: I’m disappointed and saddened about the SCLC. If they don’t’ recover soon, there won’t be any SCLC.
CNN: Are you optimistic about the country’s future?
Lowery: We’re in a tough place right now. ... The recession pulled the cover off of institutions and people that were not honest and not lawful in using all kinds of schemes to exercise greed and hurt us. We’ve learned the hard way.
I feel confident that in a few years we’ll recover from this recession, and we’ll find ways to say happy days are here again.
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