February 12th, 2011
06:00 AM ET

Joseph Lowery looks back: ‘I’m at peace’

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:

We ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right.

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.

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Barack Obama • Black issues • Books • Christianity • History • Pastors • Politics • Race

soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. Ken

    He is right about racism still being around and in different guises. He should see it since he is a racist himself. Not the bomb throwing crazy type but still a racist nonetheless. He claims it's racism that is behind any objections to Obama's presidency. He doesn't allow that there can be real policy disagreements. Just racism. President Obama placed so many people in charge of different policies who have absolutely no knowledge or experience, but only because of their skin color or left leaning policitical viewpoint. But if anyone says anyting, they're called a racist. Well, it's racism alright. Same song, different choir.

    February 12, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
  2. doctore0

    How can anyone who believes in god look back and not see the 100% fail, not see how religion is the single thing that sets us apart as brothers and sisters.
    How can anyone not see that, I tell you how; They are blinded by greed, greed for that fake eternal life in luxury.. or even only by that luxury in our ONLY life.

    February 12, 2011 at 7:46 am |
    • infonomics

      Mr doctoreo:
      Your concerns of "blinded by greed", do they extend to the mega churches and the likes of Joel Osteen, who stated to Piers Morgan that apologizing for wealth (his wealth) is like an insult to God. Apparently, Osteen is not in agreement with you and, accordingly, he has amassed a fortune with the consent of God.

      "Religion is ignorance reduced to a system." Jean Meslier, a Catholic priest (15 January 1664 – 1729)
      “Religion is the idol of the mob; it adores everything it does not understand.” Frederick The Great

      February 14, 2011 at 2:10 am |
  3. Johnny Mothoa

    I support 100% the ousting of Mubarack but for the Swiss Government to freeze his assets I consider that as thuggery. The dictators across Africa have been looting their countries for centuries and their money was welcome by the Swiss banks and once they are ousted their assetts are freezed. Swizerland must take Mubarack's money back to Egypt with immediate effect to benefit Egyptions. Switzerland is as guilty as these dictators as they play a big role for money to be stollen from Africa to their banks. I will be happy if Swizerland could face charges at the Hague if the world is fair.

    February 12, 2011 at 7:10 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.