Topics: Student Affairs, Speakers

January 11, 2010

Rev. Joseph Lowery, a legendary leader of the American civil rights movement as co-founder, with Martin Luther King Jr., of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), will speak on "Civil Rights, Now and Then" during Unity Week at Ball State Jan. 18-23.

Presented by the Multicultural Center and Office of Institutional Diversity, Lowery's scheduled address at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 19, in Pruis Hall, occurs on the eve of the one-year anniversary of his rousing benediction to close the inauguration ceremonies for President Barack Obama, the nation's first African-American chief executive. All Unity Week events, including Lowery's talk, are free and open to the public.

Now age 88, Lowery has been at the heart of the civil rights movement for more than half a century, since his work in the early 1950s with the Alabama Civic Affairs Association that initiated the drive for desegregation of public transportation and accommodations, ultimately leading to Rosa Parks' historic refusal to give up her seat to a white bus passenger in Montgomery, Ala., on Dec. 1, 1955. The resulting Montgomery bus boycott lasted for 381 days and thrust a then little-known Southern preacher named Martin Luther King Jr., who advanced the cause through his powerful oratory and personal courage, into the national spotlight.

Following the successful conclusion of the boycott — the U.S. Supreme Court having ruled that segregation in the provision of public services is unconstitutional — King and Lowery co-founded the SCLC in 1957. Shortly thereafter, Lowery figured in yet another landmark Supreme Court ruling, when he and three other SCLC staff members were sued for libel by the commissioners of Montgomery because their names appeared in an ad placed in The New York Times that aimed to raise money for a King defense fund. (King had been arrested on charges of perjury for allegedly swearing "falsely" to the accuracy of his 1956 and 1958 state tax returns in Alabama.)

Again, the Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of Lowery and his colleagues and the case, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, is now considered one of the court's key decisions supporting freedom of the press. It paved the way for continued media reporting, free of legal intimidation or harassment, of various civil rights campaigns throughout the South in the 1960s.

Among the most important of those campaigns were the Selma-to-Montgomery marches in the spring of 1965. Although there were three — only the third made it finally to Montgomery — the most famous remains the first, on "Bloody Sunday," March 7, when more than 600 civil rights supporters were attacked by state and local police with billy clubs and tear gas.

It was Lowery to whom King turned to carry the demands of the marchers to then-Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who had issued the orders that the demonstrators be beaten. In 1995, Wallace apologized to the civil rights crusader as Lowery led the 30th anniversary re-enactment of the iconic march that inspired passage of the Voting Rights Act.

In addition to his civil rights work, Lowery was a pastor in the United Methodist Church for 45 years, actively serving congregations in Mobile and Birmingham, Ala., as well as Atlanta, Ga., before finally retiring from the pulpit in 1997. A year later, he also stepped down from his post as president and chief executive officer of the SCLC — but not before being recognized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) with its lifetime achievement award, which hailed him as the "dean of the civil rights movement."

Hardly idle in retirement, Lowery continues to press for social justice on many fronts, lately emerging as a forceful voice advocating for gay rights, criminal justice reform and the abolition of capital punishment by lethal injection. He has led peace delegations to the Middle East and Central America and even recorded a rap with artist Nate the Great to encourage African-Americans to vote.

More events

Additional Unity Week activities include:

  • The Martin Luther King Jr. Day community breakfast organized by the Muncie MLK Planning Committee, at 7 a.m. Monday, Jan. 18, in the Alumni Center. Registration begins at 6:30 a.m.
  • A candlelight march in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Jan. 18), beginning at 4:30 p.m. at the Multicultural Center. Union Missionary Baptist Church, 1100 N. Macedonia Ave., will then host an evening fellowship starting at 6.
  • "Family Feud: Diversity Edition," at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 20, in the Art and Journalism Building (AJ), Room 175. This twist on the popular game show will be infused with questions about diversity and culture.
  • A presentation on "Bridging the Gap between Christians and the GLBT Community," featuring Andrew Marin, founder and president of the Marin Foundation, a nonprofit organization that seeks to build bridges between the GLBT and religious communities through scientific research as well as biblical and social education, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 21, in Pruis Hall.
  • "The Baile," dance lessons from Ball State's dance troupes, at 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 22, in Pittenger Student Center (SC), Room 303.

Also, the university's annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Concert will be held at 8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 14, in Sursa Performance Hall. Co-sponsored by the Office of Institutional Diversity and the School of Music, this year's participating groups include the Ball State School of Music Concert Choir, the Voices of Triumph Gospel Choir and Planet Earth Singers of Muncie performing "Music of the Civil Rights Era."

The annual Unity Pageant wrapping up Unity Week with the crowning of Miss and Mr. Unity, will take place at 5 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 23, in Pruis Hall.