By Kathy L. Gilbert*
(UMNS) The Rev. Joseph Lowery, 87, a United Methodist pastor and leader in the civil rights movement, is one of 16 people who will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest honor for a civilian.
Lowery said he was especially honored to be in President Obama’s “first class” of award recipients. The medals will be presented at a White House ceremony Aug. 12.
"I'm really excited to be in the company of the wonderful people that comprise the first class the president has named since he has been in office," Lowery told United Methodist News Service July 31.
Other recipients include Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, tennis legend Billie Jean King, actor Sidney Poitier and retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa.
Lowery gave the benediction and shared the inaugural platform with Obama Jan. 20. In an interview after it was announced he would do the benediction, Lowery said he "never imagined" he would live to see an African-American elected president.
On that day he prayed, “Help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate, on the side of inclusion, not exclusion, tolerance, not intolerance.”
Lowery co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957 and served as its president and chief executive officer for 20 years, beginning in 1977.
King named him chairman of the delegation to take the demands of the Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965 to Alabama Gov. George Wallace. Wallace had ordered the marchers beaten—an episode that became known as “Bloody Sunday”—but apologized to Lowery in 1995 as the civil rights pioneer led the 30th anniversary re-enactment of the historic march that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
As a United Methodist minister, Lowery served as pastor of Central church for 18 years, then as pastor of Cascade UMC. He was elected a delegate to three General Conferences and presided over an annual conference as acting bishop in 1966. His prophetic voice was instrumental in moving the church toward the goal of inclusiveness. Before coming to Atlanta, he served as pastor of United Methodist churches in Mobile and Birmingham, Ala.
Lowery said he was "stunned" when he got the call about the honor.
"I am grateful, excited, overjoyed … I wish I had more eloquent terms to express my feelings. I can't seem to get beyond humbled and honored,” Lowery said.
"I think that people who work without thought of reward in often thankless tasks need to be encouraged because I have not sought any kind of reward or recognition, yet God gives the increase and I'm thankful for that. We need to keep on struggling because our labor is not in vain."
*Gilbert is a news writer for United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tenn.