Civil Rights Leader Recalls Boycott

Rev. Joseph Lowery offers a remembrance of the Montgomery bus boycott, 50 years after the seminal moment in the civil rights movement.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Today we conclude our broadcast from the studios of WTSU in Montgomery, Alabama. The city continues to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the boycott that changed America's social landscape. Many of the spoils of the movement can be seen around the country. Today there are more black police officers and teachers, black mayors and members of Congress. In a moment, we'll hear from one of those who has benefited from the fight. Artur Davis, who represents Alabama's 7th District in the United States House of Representatives, will join us.

But first, I spoke with Reverend Joseph Lowery, a giant of the civil rights era. In 1957, he co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Dr. King. Despite 50 years of progress, he thinks there's still much to do, and the modern civil rights movement, he says, could learn a thing or two from Montgomery's example.

Reverend JOSEPH LOWERY (Co-Founder, Southern Christian Leadership Conference): You had a kind of unity in the community in Montgomery that we had never seen before and, frankly, we may not ever seen it since. This was a breakthrough in terms of self-determination. Prior to the bus boycott, the strategy for the black movement depended so much on what the courts said or didn't say or what the Congress said or didn't say or what the state Legislature said or the City Council did or did not say. Here, black people decided it really didn't matter what they said. So they took destiny into their own hands, and that was the birth of an era that we could call self-determination. We've not always followed through with it, just as we haven't followed through with that unity, but nevertheless, it did signal a new chapter.

GORDON: Reverend, it's actually interesting you bring that up, because none of us would want to go back to those days, but as you suggested, perhaps with the gains that we made socially, we may have lost something, if you will, alongside of the road. Any way to get that back, in your mind, today?

Rev. LOWERY: I certainly hope and pray so. I think our great universe bends toward justice, and it may move slowly, but it moves surely, as my grandmother used to say. I'd like to see the day hastened by our renewed sense of each-otherness and unity, by our not sitting around waiting on some 10-foot-tall black dude riding a 12-foot-tall black horse, wearing black and shining armor, riding through the ghetto with a magic black wand, making us instantly healthy, wealthy and wise. He ain't coming. His grandmother hadn't been born. So each of us is going to have to assume the role of leader, the role of example.

We have a group here in Georgia called the Coalition for the People's Agenda, and our motto is: We are chaplains of the common good. We've got to spread that kind of fever. It's got to become contagious, and I hope it'll come sooner than later.

GORDON: Reverend, let me ask you, as we look to what can be done today, certainly with this being the 50th anniversary and with the passing of Mother Parks so recently, people have begun to at least have the dialogue. What would you like to see move first?

Rev. LOWERY: First of all, I think we need a spiritual revival. The spiritual basis of our choices and our priorities gave us power. We've sort of deserted the good spouse of the spirituality and we're carrying on an affair, if not shacking up, with the prostitute of materialism and greed. And that's an incestuous affair. Like all incestuous affairs, it breeds offspring with congenital defects. And among those defects are addiction to drugs, addiction to guns, addiction to things rather than people. We've got to re-order our priorities from the perspective of what doth say the Lord. That's what I mean by spirituality. So I would hope that that's got to be the beginning of a new movement to turn to each other and not on each other, develop an agenda that we can follow religiously and turn our movement back toward the city of God.

GORDON: When you look back now 50 years later, are you where you thought we would be?

Rev. LOWERY: I spoke at the breakfast sponsored by the Montgomery Improvement Association last Thursday morning in Montgomery, and my topic was one I've used before, and it's called Everything Has Changed, and Nothing Has Changed. We've come a long, long ways in many instances and from many perspectives. We've got several thousand black elected officials. When Martin died, we had only a handful. Median income has moved up slightly. We've got more black police officers and black elected--and at the same time, while we've got more black police officers, we've got more police profiling and police brutality. While we've got 300-and-some mayors sitting in City Hall, in the shadows of too many of those City Halls, we still have poverty. We've not only got to have black leadership that helps turn us around, but we've also got to work to put into office white leaders but who must be held accountable to the standards of justice we insist on.

Our policies, which are anti-union, anti-livable wage and anti-black and anti-poor have left us poor. The top--the richest 20 counties in this country, only three of them are in the South; of the poorest 20 counties, 16 of them. So we've got to learn to address those issues, and we've got to challenge all leaders, black and white, all elected officials. The religious leadership must rise up and stop being the taillight, and then we can have another movement that'll finish the unfinished task.

GORDON: Reverend Lowery, as always, so good to talk to you, and we thank you for your time.

Rev. LOWERY: Well, thank you so much, and let's turn to each other, not on each other.

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