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Civil rights icon Rev. Joseph Lowery dies at 98

The Rev. Joseph Lowery makes remarks in front of the Lincoln Memorial to mark the 50th anniversary of  Dr Martin Luther King's, I Have a Dream speech, August 24, 2013, in Washington, D.C. Lowery died Friday. File Photo by Mike Theiler/UPI
The Rev. Joseph Lowery makes remarks in front of the Lincoln Memorial to mark the 50th anniversary of  Dr Martin Luther King's, " I Have a Dream " speech, August 24, 2013, in Washington, D.C. Lowery died Friday. File Photo by Mike Theiler/UPI | License Photo

March 28 (UPI) -- Rev. Joseph Lowery, a Civil Rights Movement icon who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, has died at age 98.

Lowery died peacefully at home Friday night, surrounded by his daughters, according to a statement by the Joseph & Evelyn Lowery Institute for Justice and Human Rights.

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"Hailed as the 'dean of the civil rights movement' upon his receipt of the NAACP's Lifetime Achievement Award, Dr. Lowery had assumed and executed a broad and diverse series of roles over the span of his nine decades: leader, pastor, servant, father, husband, freedom fighter and advocate," the statement said.

Born in Hunstville, Ala., on October 6, 1921, he was part of pivotal moments in the nation's early civil rights struggles, including helping to organize the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.

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The 381-day boycott, a non-violent movement, desegregated the city's public transportation and led to formation of the SCLC, which he co-founded in 1957 with his friend and colleague Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin, Ralph Abernathy, Ella Baker and Fred Shuttlesworth, among others.

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"Everybody cleansed themselves, purged themselves of weapons, and had prayer," he said in a 2011 oral history interview for the Library of Congress. "And we took out on the bus route sitting in the front of the bus."

King served as the SCLC's first president and Lowery served as vice president from 1957 to 1967. As vice president of the civil rights organization, Lowery marched, went to jail and had his property seized by the state of Alabama. In 1967, he became chairman of the board, and in 1977 he became the SCLC's president and CEO, replacing Abernathy, who succeeded King as president.

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In 1965, King named Lowery to deliver demands to then-Alabama Gov. George Wallace after the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery. The march was hallmarked by Bloody Sunday, a violent event during which police tear gassed and clubbed peaceful marchers at Edmund Pettus Bridge. The event led to Congress enacting the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Four decades later, Lowery reflected on the achievement, saying that the number of black elected officials in the country had gone from less than 300 in 1965 to nearly 10,000 by 2005.

"It changed the face of the nation," he said.

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A few years later, President Barack Obama asked Lowery to give the benediction at his inauguration.

"It struck me forcefully that hey, you're talking to, you really are talking to the 44th president of the United States," Lowery told NPR. "And he's a fellow that looks like you."

Lowery added that despite fighting for voting rights, he never imagined he would live to see the day Americans would elect a black president.

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In 2009, Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of his lifelong commitment to the non-violent struggle for human rights, economic equality, voting rights, peace and human dignity.

Obama said he and former first lady Michelle Obama sent their love to Lowery's family.

"Joseph Lowery changed the face of America. He carried the baton longer and surer than almost anybody. It falls to the rest of us now to pick it up and never stop moving forward until we finish what he started -- that journey to justice," Obama said.

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Still, at age 91, in an appearance at the National Mall for the 50th anniversary of King's "I Have a Dream" speech and the March on Washington, Lowery warned that hard fought-voting rights gains were under attack.

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The U.S. Supreme Court had struck down a requirement that many states receive federal approval for voting law changes. Lowery was among many leaders who said states, such as Texas, enforced stricter voting identification laws that unfairly target minorities after the ruling. The Obama administration sued Texas over its voting ID law change.

"We come today, 50 years later, it's even stranger that there are men and forces who still seek to restrict our vote and deny our full participation," Lowery said. "Well, we come here to Washington to say: We ain't going back. We've come too far, marched too long, prayed too hard, wept too bitterly, bled too profusely and died too young to let anybody turn back the clock on our journey to justice."

Lowery and his late wife, Evelyn, established the Lowery Institute for Justice and Human Rights in 2002 at Clark Atlanta University to continue his legacy and promote non-violent advocacy for future generations.

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Richard "Dick" Thornburgh, former attorney general of the United States and former governor of Pennsylvania, takes a seat at the witness hearing after U.S. Chief Justice nominee Judge John Roberts testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on September 15, 2005. Thornburgh died on December 31 at age 88. Photo by Yuri Gripas/UPI | License Photo

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