Joseph Lowery, American civil rights leader, dies at 98

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American civil rights movement leader Joseph Lowery died on Friday at the age of 98, his family said.

A charismatic and fiery preacher, Lowery helped the Rev Martin Luther King Jr to fight against racial discrimination and led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for two decades – restoring its financial stability and pressuring businesses not to trade with South Africa’s apartheid-era regime. He retired in 1997.

Lowery, considered the dean of civil rights veterans, lived to celebrate a November 2008 milestone that few of his movement colleagues thought they would ever witness: the election of an African American president. At an emotional victory celebration for Barack Obama in Atlanta, Lowery said: “America tonight is in the process of being born again.”

An early and enthusiastic supporter of Obama over then-Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, Lowery also gave the benediction at Obama’s inauguration.

Through the lens of civil rights photographer Doris Derby – in pictures
In 2009 Obama awarded Lowery the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour in the US.

In another high-profile moment Lowery drew a standing ovation at the 2006 funeral of King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, when he criticised the war in Iraq, saying: “For war, billions more, but no more for the poor.” The comment drew head shakes from then-president George Bush and his father, the former president George HW Bush, who were seated behind the pulpit.

In this May 1970 photo, newly elected president of the United Auto Workers Union Leonard Woodcock, in glasses and dark suit, locks arms with Coretta Scott King, wife of slain Martin Luther King Jr, and Joseph E Lowery as they lead a protest march in Atlanta against war, violence and racial repression

Lowery’s involvement in civil rights grew out of his Christian faith. He often preached that racial discrimination in housing, employment and health care was at odds with fundamental Christian values such as human worth and the brotherhood of man. “I’ve never felt your ministry should be totally devoted to making a heavenly home. I thought it should also be devoted to making your home here heavenly,” he once said.

His wife, Evelyn Gibson Lowery, who worked alongside her husband of nearly 70 years and served as head of SCLC/Women, died in 2013.