Dr. Joseph Lowery was one of the people who, decades ago, taught me that there are issues much bigger than one's race and its culture, and there comes a point at which one must rise above his or her provincial and even ethnic preferences.
How ironic that it is now Dr. Lowery who seems to be suggesting voters give up that greater vision.
According to a report in a Georgia newspaper, Dr. Lowery addressed a pro-Obama rally October 27 at Saint James Baptist Church, Forsyth, Georgia. Forsyth Mayor John Howard was quoted by the Monroe County Reporter as being "pretty shocked" by what Dr. Lowery said in his speech to the crowd.
Back when he was a young militant, the now 91-year-old told the Georgia audience, he would tell groups that all white people were going to hell. Then he moderated a bit, he said October 27, and that it was only "most" of whites who would wind up in the fiery pit. Now, however, according to the newspaper report, Dr. Lowery said he is back at his original position – all whites are going to hell. Further, he is quoted as saying, "I don't know what kind of n----- wouldn't vote with a black man running."
When pressed later, Dr. Lowery said the first comment was a joke, and the second he didn't remember uttering. However, four years earlier, Dr. Lowery's attitude was on global display when he pronounced the benediction at President Obama's inauguration. That prayer closed with a plea that God "would help us work for the day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right."
But there were many many whites who did get it right, and it is regrettable that Dr. Lowery, perhaps because of his advanced age, forgets them. Some of them paid huge prices when they had the courage to rise above their race and white southern culture and "embrace what is right."
I know because I was a reporter in Birmingham, the hot core of the southern civil rights furnace in the 1960s. I worked for a white-owned, white-led newspaper that blasted segregation and its proponents to the extent The Birmingham News was threatened by advertisers saying they would pull their accounts, and even with KKK-inspired violence. I knew many whites, many of whom had supported racial segregation, as the News once had, who, when they joined the call for an end to racial discrimination, paid a dear price.
Beginning in 1970, I would meet many more people, white and black, who rose above their own racial and cultural peers to fight, in unity, for a greater cause. Richard Nixon, so vilified by the left, had nevertheless decided to lead in implementation of the most sweeping school desegregation in American history. Eleven southern states were not in compliance with court-ordered desegregation. Whole school systems were at stake. Community violence was a searing concern.
By then I was assistant director of the Cabinet Committee on Education, a White House group tasked to get the President's goals accomplished peacefully. We knew we would need support within the states, and formed citizen groups who would urge their fellow citizens to "keep your cool-support your school." They were aided by Dr. Billy Graham, who made a television commercial centered on that theme, telecast throughout the South.
The committees brought together – often for the first time – whites and blacks to work for the common goal of implementing peaceful desegregation. Some of the white representatives had fought the move intensely, but now were joining with leaders of the NAACP and other civil rights groups to lead their state school systems into compliance.
In August, 1970, Nixon traveled to New Orleans to meet with all the state groups. Prior to his arrival, contention arose in the Louisiana committee. It appeared the President's plans would be derailed, and he would be personally embarrassed. Ultimately the state committee members, including Louisiana's NAACP chief and the leader of a large white-rights contingent, agreed on a press statement that brought the whole committee into harmony.
All the heroic people – black and white – I knew, wrote about as a Birmingham reporter, and worked with as a White House aide in that era had to rise above their race and culture. It took huge sacrifice to do that. The whites were loathed by their own as 'n-lovers," and the blacks had to endure ostracism as "whities."
What troubles me is that Dr. Lowery was there, and I am saddened the years may have robbed him of the memories.
With so many scars from the battle for civil rights, Dr. Lowery could speak to America as a wise patriarch, calling us to higher things – like the battle against abortion, which kills a staggering number of black children annually, along with those of all races. Dr. Lowery might do as other black ministers have done, and lament the fact that our nation's first black President has expanded abortion to unprecedented levels, and advocated a philosophy of marriage that contradicts what is preached from most of America's eloquent black pulpits. Dr. Lowery could warn of the dangers of robbing people at the bottom of the economic rung of their enterprise by making them wards of the government.
Dr. Lowery, along with Dr. Martin Luther King, challenged me those many years ago to rise above my white race and southern white culture. Now the challenge must go to black and white voters – and all others – who will go to the polls Tuesday, to rise above their narrow interests, and look long and hard at America's destiny before they vote.
Race-baiting is not the mantle of a patriarch, but of petulant mindlessness, and does not fit a man of Dr. Lowery's stature as a hero of the civil rights movement.