Dignitaries honor Joseph Lowery at 90th birthday celebration


     In a night filled with rousing performances, the Rev. Joseph Lowery was still able to bring the house down with his rendition of “We Shall Overcome” at a gala celebration in his honor last month at the Atlanta Symphony Hall.
      It was standing room only for the 90th birthday of the dean of the civil rights movement.
     President Barack Obama sent a video greeting with three of his staff members — Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser; Josh DuBois, head of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships; and Attorney General Eric Holder.

    “I don’t know where I would be without your support and advice,” Obama said in a video tribute. “I don’t know where this country would be without your leadership.”
   Jarrett thanked Lowery for his work in getting Obama elected.
    “In those early years, Rev. Lowery had the audacity and the optimism to believe that a skinny guy with a funny name could be the president of the United States,” Jarrett said. “He didn’t just believe it, but he put his heart and soul and his elbow grease into making sure that it happened.”
     Holder, the first African-American to hold his position, told Lowery he was rededicating the Department of Justice’s commitment to civil rights work.
   Holder called Lowery his “mentor, role model and dear friend.”
    Other celebrities that sent video greetings to Lowery were poet Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
     “You have been an example to me,” Carter said. “I couldn’t be there tonight, but I am thinking of you.”
Musical and theatrical performances
    Soledad O’Brien, host of the In America documentary unit on CNN, was host for a night filled with performers as varied asthe Blind Boys of Alabama, Peabo Bryson and Stevie Wonder.
   Spelman College and Morehouse College glee clubs provided a sea of young faces and voices behind the symphony.
    One of the highlights of the evening was Wonder inviting the Atlanta Symphony and the college glee clubs to improvise with him on “My Cherie Amour” and an original song composed in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
    Theatrical performances recreating famous moments in Lowery’s history punctuated the celebration. One moving scene was a conversation between Lowery and a white waitress who had to refuse service to him on many occasions.
    “It hurt me to not be able to serve you, but I have three children at home and I need this job,” she said.
      Cicely Tyson, actress and activist, led a special tribute to Evelyn, Lowery’s wife of 60 years. “The Living Truth” honored Evelyn’s “power of love.”
    “She has been a woman whose vision has inspired generations, and she has never been daunted by a fight,” Tyson said.
     Retired United Methodist Bishop Woodie White, chair of the Lowery Institute, thanked the event’s sponsors: Delta Air Lines, Coca-Cola and Kia Motors. Proceeds from the event will go to the Lowery Institute at Clark-Atlanta University, one of The United Methodist Church’s historically black institutions.
    Delta has dedicated a plane to Lowery with his signature and “Dean of the Civil Rights Movement” painted on its side. “Thank you for the plane,” Lowery quipped. “I don’t know where I’m going to keep the damn thing.”
       Some of Lowery’s companions in the fight for civil rights were also on hand to thank their friend and inspiration.
 Walking across the stage to stand in front of Lowery, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., said, “Uncle Joe, I just came by to thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart; Joe, I love you.”
    As a college student, Lewis had been one of the leaders of the 1961 Freedom Rides to help integrate interstate bus travel and later risked his life to register black voters in Southern states.
   Former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young said Lowery never left the scene after King’s assassination in 1968. “You have to make it to 100; 99 and a half won’t do.”
   At the end of the evening, Lowery said he was speechless — not something that happens often, he admitted.
    “There are no words to express what is in my heart. I almost cried when the Blind Boys of Alabama played with the Atlanta Symphony. That’s what it is all about — God moves in mysterious ways.”
     Walking the red carpet before the celebration, Lowery was asked about his life of service.
“I always heard the rent you pay for living in God’s house is service. God let me have a long-term lease.”
A man known as well for his inspirational sermons as his quick wit, Lowery summed up his feelings about the celebration: “If I had known it was this much fun to be 90, I would have done it before now.”