Joseph Lowery

Eric Harrison is the Atlanta bureau chief for The Times

The modest Atlanta headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference haven't changed much in the last 30 years--and neither has the Rev. Joseph Lowery, the organization's president since 1977. An SCLC co-founder, Lowery rose to prominence in the 1950s, when the burning issues for African Americans were school integration, voting rights and equal access to public accommodations.

Today's issues are far more complex, yet Lowery soldiers on, armed with tactics and a mind-set that some critics deride as outdated. Like his cramped office and vintage desk--which once belonged to SCLC's first president, Martin Luther King Jr.--the 73-year-old Lowery is of another era.

Still, he gets results. Wielding threats of boycotts, he negotiated $125-million and $150-million agreements, respectively, with Publix Supermarkets and Shoney's restaurants calling for the companies to hire African American vendors and managers and locate businesses in black neighborhoods.

Negotiated victories such as these command less attention than did the battles of the 1950s and 1960s. America is a different place. But the rash of black church fires across the South--evoking as they do memories of 1960s-era anti-civil rights violence--has revived the specter of racial hatred that divided the country then.

Recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings and initiatives in California and elsewhere have curbed affirmative action and other programs designed to level the playing field. Ever since Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, civil rights leaders have decried efforts to "turn back the clock." In Newt Gingrich's America, the revolution continues, setting the stage, some say, for a resurgence of racial animosity. Lowery, an avuncular, retired Methodist minister, who is married to the former Evelyn Gibson and has three daughters and eight grandchildren, has seen it all before.

Last year, 30 years after the police beat activists as they began to walk from Selma to Montgomery to campaign for integration, aging heroes of the movement reenacted the historic march. Former Alabama Gov. George Wallace snubbed them in 1965. This time, he met with them to apologize. Remembering that Lowery, in a face-to-face meeting, once told him his rhetoric incited violence, the wheelchair-ridden Wallace told the civil rights leader he had been right. "I say to the demagogues, 'You ought to listen to George,' " Lowery says.

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Question: What does it say about the state of race relations that people are still burning black churches in 1996?

Answer: One thing it says is that we have created a 51st state--the state of denial. This country is in serious denial about its race relations. The church fires have sort of pulled the cover off. That's why there's a continuum of: "It's really not racial. There's no conspiracy." Now the new thing is: "There are just as many white churches that have been burned as black churches." We don't want to face the fact that there is a deep-seated, pervasive racism in this country.

My own theory is that I don't believe it is any one organization. I wish it were. It would be a lot simpler to deal with from every perspective. But there is a cultural conspiracy. There's an attitudinal conspiracy and hostility against black folk. Political demagogues have created a climate that lends itself to hostility by confused, misdirected people against black folk--and women, and welfare programs and affirmative action. There are a lot of white guys in the country whose anger is directed toward federal buildings or the federal government itself, others against the symbol of black advocacy--the church.

For the first time in while, white folk have to cope with economic uncertainty. That's a new diet for them. For us it's par for the course . . . . But for white folks, it's different. And they've been led to believe that the reason is affirmative action, reverse discrimination . . . .

Q: Do you think there is any legitimacy in the anger that white males feel?

A: Yeah, there's legitimacy. It's just the wrong target. We all ought to be angry at a system where 1% percent of the people control 40% of the wealth . . . .

Why does Pete Wilson have an initiative against affirmative action? Why do trustees of the universities find it necessary to take out any racial consideration? What they're saying to white kids who are not getting into colleges is, "This is why you didn't get in. The black kids got in. This is why you can't get a job. Affirmative action got your job." Completely denying the fact that there aren't enough jobs . . . .

Yeah, he ought to be angry, but he ought not to be angry with me. Direct it toward the system so we can change it. If he'd lock arms with us we could change it overnight . . . . That's what Martin [Luther King Jr.] was trying to do in the Poor People's Campaign--get white folks to join us in the attempt . . . .

Q: In your view, is there room for compromise in efforts to reform welfare or make changes in affirmative action?

A: Welfare needs reform badly. I haven't heard anybody with any common sense say that the welfare system, as presently structured, makes any sense. It discourages people from working because it punishes them for taking a small job. It certainly needs reform, but we don't need to punish the people who honestly seek work and there's not any work they can qualify for . . . .

We should train them, create new jobs, provide day care. We need to do all of that. Everybody's for that. But they make political hay out of it.

And with affirmative action, OK, maybe there are some adjustments we need to make. Maybe I'll go along with Clinton's political strategy: Mend, don't end. I'll go along with that. That's politics, but I'll go along with that. Show me where it needs mending. Let's mend it. But the answer is in full employment. The answer is in creating more jobs. The answer is in paying a livable wage to everybody. Then we won't have to fight over the crumbs . . . .

But we're protecting that 1% who control 40%. We're protecting that 10% of shareholders who are profiting from the downsizing and the mergers.

I'm meeting with Hugh McColl of NationsBank Friday . . . . I threatened to try to block a merger with them and Bank South, and he committed himself that he wasn't going to cost the community services. The poor community is not going to suffer when they merge. He has assured me . . . . But we've got to have more corporate leadership like that, and we've got to push him harder. We've got to find ways to do that.

Guys are sitting around talking about, "We've got to change our methods." They say, "You guys are out of date." OK, how would you persuade NationsBank? I would threaten him with boycotts. I'd picket his bank. I'd try to get blacks to withdraw accounts. Now how would you do it? . . . .

I was on TV with a guy in Raleigh the other day, some young guy. He said, "They did a wonderful job in their day. But now it's a new day and we've got to do new things." I said, "What would you suggest, brother?" "Pray." (hearty laughs) That was the only thing he came up with. "And we've got to sit down." I said, "Well, we've always sat down, brother. But if you don't sit down with some power behind you you're kneeling down--and they will crown you with a baseball bat. They'll call you mister and kick your butt.

The difference is that, in the early days, they'd kick your butt and say, "boy." Now he'll kick your butt and say, "mister, doctor, professor . . . . "

People act like all we ever did was march. Marching was the least thing. That was the culmination, when every thing else failed. When negotiations, voting and everything else failed--then we went to the streets. And it got results. It got results for women. It got results for farmers . . . . I don't know anything except pressure--economic and political pressure and moral pressure . . . .

Q: Do civil rights leaders and organizations still command the moral authority that they once did?

A: I don't think anybody commands the moral authority they once did. I don't think the church does. If it did, we wouldn't have such moral deterioration in the country. We have abandoned our moral tenets. We have deserted the good spouse of spirituality. We're shacking up. We're carrying on an illicit affair with the prostitute of materialism and greed. That's an incestuous affair, and it has produced offspring with congenital defects: violence, corruption, exploitation, racism, sexism. All of these are products of materialism and greed. So, no, we don't have the moral authority. Nobody does. I wish we did.

Q: The movement never really seemed to have recovered from that period of disarray at the death of Dr. King. Can we even still speak of the civil rights movement in the present tense?

A: It depends on your vantage point. If you're talking about the media's priority, no . . . . If it wasn't for the church fires, you wouldn't be sitting here. What has happened to the movement, is it has proliferated. When Dr. King died we didn't have 500 black elected officials. Now we've got 10,000 . . . . But somebody's still got to raise the right questions, even for the black elected officials. Somebody has to take them to task . . . . The movement's in a lot of different places. It has spread around . . . . If you're talking about that single focus, that'll probably never come again.

And the problems are different. It was pretty simple to talk about where you sit on the bus . . . . The issues are not as clear and sharp and photographable as they were--but they're still just as tough. And there are still three ways to deal with them: moral, political and economic pressure.

Q: On the issues you're confronted with now, especially affirmative action and other issues where politicians can divide people along race and class lines, how do you bridge that?

A: You've got to build coalitions. It's very tough. It's the most difficult thing to do because you have the people in power who keep fanning the fears . . . .

We thought all we had to do was get into the mainstream. If we broke down segregation in schools, we broke down segregation on buses and we got into the mainstream of hiring and so forth, that all of our problems would be over.

Tain't true. We found out once we got in there that the mainstream is polluted. Morally polluted . . . . Greed. Classism . . . . The economy is controlled by a small number of people, and that's not democratic. Our capitalism can't spell democracy. There ain't no such thing as democratic capitalism . . . .

Q: Are you confidant that a new generation of leadership will continue SCLC after you retire?

A: Sure. It continued when Martin died. It continued when Ralph [Abernathy] left. It'll continue when I leave. God's always got a ram in the bush.

We're not IBM. God calls our leaders. We don't recruit . . . . I'm begging them to come. I'd like to go play golf . . . . When the time comes God will have them. I told him the time was five years ago. He said no, one more year. One more year, Doc. One more year. Well, that one more is about to run out. But God will send somebody . . . .

One of the things that black folks got to do is stop letting media and other folks have them sitting around waiting on this 10-foot-tall black dude wearing black and shining armor, riding a 12-foot-tall black horse, waving a magic black wand, riding through the ghetto making every n----- instantly healthy, wealthy and wise. He ain't coming.

That's why one of the things I'm going to say tonight [at a public meeting on church burnings] is that members of these churches in these remote areas, go out there, like we used to do, sit out there all night, sit there and pray and sing all night. All you need is an unarmed presence in these remote areas. And white folks ought to join them.

Q: They can't do that forever.

A: Don't have to do it forever. Just till the storm passes. This is a temporary thing. I don't think it'll last. As soon as they put some dude in jail for 25 years it'll slow down. Then the fad will die out. When people realize that people are around watching churches and law enforcement tightens up and puts some severe punishment on some people, you'll see, it'll pass. Then something else will pop up. You can't shake our fist in God's face forever.

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