The Reverend Joseph Lowery is uncharacteristically quiet as he sits at a long table inside the modest room in Downtown’s Atlanta Life Insurance Company building. Between bites of fried chicken and peach cobbler, he occasionally interjects or asks a question, but mostly he listens attentively, staring out at a group that’s as diverse as the issues for which its members are so passionate. A graying African American civil rights activist discussing the need to register more voters sits next to a white woman—a soccer-mom type with three young children in tow (including an infant in a carrier on her back)—who rattles off her pro-life platform. A middle-aged man with Barack Obama pins plastered all over his denim jacket sits just a few feet away from the Latina woman planning a youth rally.
The delegation gathers every Tuesday around noon for Georgia Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda meetings. GCPA is an organization headed by Lowery that brings representatives from various civil rights organizations together to work on issues of common concern, including economic empowerment, prison reform, and environmental justice. When Lowery does speak, they all lean in attentively, as if they’re trying to soak up every bit of wisdom espoused by the eighty-six-year-old civil rights activist, who has been crusading since his days as a young minister in segregated Alabama.
“I think it’s given him the opportunity to maintain contact with the people,” says Helen Butler of GCPA, the organization Lowery launched after he retired from the pulpit in 1992. “He thrives off that and it gives him energy. It’s like his ministry for the people.” Adds Faye Coffield, a private investigator who heads the organization’s criminal justice committee: “His legacy will be that he was fearless, even when it was unpopular. Unfortunately there aren’t a lot of leaders like that left today.”
Lowery keeps plenty busy between the coalition and the Joseph E. Lowery Institute, a social justice center established in 2001 at Clark Atlanta University to provide free forums on human and civil rights issues. Lowery has survived prostate cancer, throat surgery, and Jim Crow. He sometimes complains about arthritis in his leg, but it’s hard to believe that the sprightly Methodist minister is eighty-six, not sixty-eight. The outspoken leader, once dubbed the “dean of the civil rights movement” by former NAACP president Kweisi Mfume, has not relinquished his crown nor officially passed the torch.
“Martin’s gone, Ralph’s gone, Hosea’s gone, and God has given me enough good health to stay around, and it’s not because I’m so wise,” Lowery says. “I figure the Lord has kept me here for a reason—to do more work.”