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Still Singing the Lord's Song of Justice

Civil rights activist the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery shares thoughts, essays in his first book

As one of the icons of the civil rights movement, the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery has a full winter calendar. It started with celebrations for Martin Luther King Jr. Day and continues with events honoring Black History Month.

Reverend Lowry

The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery. — Harold Daniels/Corbis Outline

"I'm not worn out, but I'm stubborn," says the 89-year-old Lowery of his busy season. He recently found himself in Washington to accept the John Thompson Legacy of a Dream Award during a ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The commendation is given each year by Georgetown University during the King holiday weekend. He is also a 2009 recipient of the Medal of Freedom, presented to him by President Obama.

Being lavished with awards and accolades is nothing new for Lowery, but he is on to new things. After years of speeches to congregations and world leaders, Lowery has written his first book, Singing the Lord's Song in a Strange Land, a collection of thoughts, sermons and essays.

"My family and the people around me kept reminding me how lazy I'd been that I hadn't put some of these things down in writing," Lowery says when asked what took him so long to write a book. "I guess I got tired of being nagged."

An ordained minister in the United Methodist Church, Lowery says his book binds civil rights, justice and religion to responsibility — making the issue of civil rights a moral imperative. He says it is impossible to separate the two.

"The whole issue of justice and civil rights is a religious issue," the Alabama native says. "The whole movement I took part in was working with God in his plan for his people and his will for his people in my perspective. I never saw it separate from church and religion."

The title comes from a well-known speech that Lowery has delivered several times to audiences. It's a challenge to sing the Lord's song in the midst of oppression, Lowery says, so he hopes the book gives others encouragement to do so.

Working with Martin Luther King

When he made his entrance onto the national civil rights stage, Lowery was a pastor in Mobile, Ala. The NAACP had been outlawed there, and a woman named Rosa Parks had set off a statewide controversy by refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery. Lowery, who had been an activist as a minister, found himself in meetings with a younger pastor from Montgomery — Martin Luther King Jr.

"We became friends and were friends until his death," Lowery says. "When I speak and tie Martin to the spiritual faith, there is still a reaction in the crowd. I'm so thankful he is remembered."

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