By Michelle E. Shaw and Ernie Suggs
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
It was a very rare occasion that Evelyn Lowery wasn’t at the side of her husband, the Rev. Joseph Lowery.
As he rose to prominence as one of the country’s leading figures in the civil rights movement, she was a constant companion, whether it was at a rally, march, news conference or in church. Conversely, as she established herself as a leader as founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference/WOMEN, her husband was a steady presence.
With one notable exception: It was in Decatur, Ala., on May 26, 1979.
Joseph Lowery was leading a march of nearly 2,000 in support of Tommy Lee Hines, a mentally disabled Black man who was accused of raping a white woman and convicted in October 1978 by an all-white jury. Sensing the threat of danger, Lowery had his wife ride behind the marchers in the couple’s pale green 1977 Buick.
“The Klan had threatened violence,” Evelyn Lowery said in a 1985 interview with The Atlanta Journal Constitution. “I usually walk beside my husband, but he said I better not this time. So I drove the car.”
The car and the marchers were met by a mob of Klansmen. Several shots were fired. She barely escaped; two shots hit the Buick.
One bullet left a hole in the window frame on the driver’s side. The other shattered the windshield and lodged in the dashboard.
“I could hear them yelling ‘Kill ‘em all!’ ” she said. “It lasted probably about 10 minutes, but it seemed like an eternity.”
The Buick still sits in the Lowerys’ Atlanta garage as a reminder.
Evelyn Gibson Lowery died Thursday morning at her home from complications from a stroke. Lowery, 88, was hospitalized Sept. 18 after suffering the stroke at her home. She returned home from the hospital Wednesday.
The family shared a celebration of Evelyn Lowery’s life with the public in two events this week.
On Monday, there was be a public viewing from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. at Cascade United Methodist Church, 3144 Cascade Road in southwest Atlanta.
On Wednesday, there will be a viewing from 9 to 10:30 a.m. at Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel on the campus of Morehouse College. Her homegoing celebration will begin at 11 a.m. in King Chapel.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to SCLC/Women Inc., Evelyn G. Lowery Civil Rights Heritage Educational Tour, 328 Auburn Ave., Atlanta, GA 30303, or to the Joseph E. Lowery Institute, P.O. Box 92801, Atlanta, GA 30314.
“My beloved Evelyn was a special woman, whose life was committed to service, especially around the issues of empowering women,” Joseph Lowery said in a prepared statement. “She was a wonderful mother and wife, and I thank God that she didn’t suffer any pain and that I was blessed having her as my partner, my confidant and my best friend for close to 70 years. I will miss her each and every day, but as a man of faith, I know that she is with her God.”
Born in Topeka, Kan., the former Evelyn Gibson was introduced to a life of activism by her father, the Rev. Harry B. Gibson, a Methodist preacher. He served at various churches across the country, including a stop in Birmingham, Ala., where he was also active within the NAACP.
While her parents lived in Birmingham, Evelyn Gibson moved to Atlanta to attend Clark College. In 1947, her younger sister set her up on a blind date with a young Birmingham preacher. Evelyn Gibson and Joseph E. Lowery dated for a year and then married April 5, 1948. Three daughters followed.
“She was a faithful supporter of the movement and supporter of the leadership of her husband,” U.S. Rep. John Lewis said. “She was one of the women who was there with Mrs. (Coretta Scott) King and Dr. (Martin Luther) King and Mrs. (Juanita) Abernathy and Ralph Abernathy, so out of that group, the three [wives] … Mrs. Abernathy is the only one left.”
Juanita Abernathy said she met Lowery in the early ’60s.
“She was always by Joe’s side,” Abernathy said. “They were always a team. My prayers go out to Joe and the whole family.”
Evelyn Lowery often said she assumed she would officially go into social work after she graduated from college. She admitted later that as the wife of a preacher, she ultimately filled that role.
On Oct. 18, 1979, two years after her husband became president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Lowery formed SCLC/WOMEN (Women’s Organizational Movement for Equality Now) to give women more of a voice. Although women like her, Coretta Scott King, Juanita Abernathy and Diane Nash had been active in the movement, the roles of women were traditionally diminished. No women, for example, spoke during the March on Washington.
“It was apparent women were coming into our own around the country, in leadership roles,” she told the AJC. “Women have been supportive of the civil rights movement all through the years, but not in leadership roles. This was the beginning of not only being active in leadership but also vocal.”
Initially a branch of the SCLC, the women’s group eventually split from the civil rights organization. In the late 1990s and early 2000s SCLC/WOMEN branched out into several areas, including AIDS awareness, historic documentation and preservation, health and welfare, and programs aimed at strengthening Black families. In 1980, she created the Drum Major for Justice Award, which honored people for their contributions to the cause of freedom, equality and achievement.
In 1984, along with women’s rights activist Judy Goldsmith and then-U.S. Rep. Louis Stokes, Lowery was arrested outside the South African Embassy in Washington for protesting against apartheid.
Over the years, Lowery continued to raise awareness of past struggles. She routinely organized bus trips to Alabama to visit sites in Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma, Lewis said.
“She was a very strong supporter,” he said. “She organized it herself, busing people. So she’s going to be deeply missed.”
In 2004, Lowery was inducted into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site.
At the time of her death, Lowery was in the process of helping plan a fundraiser and 92nd birthday celebration for her husband, which is scheduled for Oct. 6 at the King International Chapel at Morehouse College.
Along with her husband, Lowery’s survivors include her daughters, two sons, a sister and grandchildren.
By Michelle E. Shaw and Ernie Suggs