Civil Rights Icon Hopes For Solidarity Under Obama

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Longtime civil rights activist Rev. Joseph Lowery will deliver the benediction at President-elect Obama's inauguration Tuesday. He tells NPR's Michele Norris it is an honor "beyond his wildest dreams" to participate in the inauguration of the nation's first black president.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block. We're looking ahead to tomorrow's inauguration of Barack Obama. My co-host, Michele Norris, talked with one of the participants in that ceremony, who says it's an honor beyond his wildest dreams.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

In the 1920s, Reverend Joseph Lowery was born in Huntsville, Alabama. In the '30s and '40s, he attended segregated schools. In the '50s, he was active in the civil rights movement, and he paid a price for his involvement. His family was threatened, and his property was seized by the state. By the '60s, he'd become one of Martin Luther King Jr.'s most trusted advisers. In the '70s and '80s, he was still agitating, protesting apartheid in South Africa. He's seen a lot. Tomorrow, he'll be on stage at the U.S. Capitol, standing with the nation's first black president. When I spoke with Reverend Joseph Lowery, he wouldn't say much about the benediction he'll give, but he did say this:

Reverend JOSEPH LOWERY (Minister, United Methodist Church): They told me I only had two minutes, so it won't be a long prayer.

NORRIS: And that...

Rev. LOWERY: It will be a brief prayer.

NORRIS: That must be difficult for a pastor...

Rev. LOWERY: It may...

NORRIS: To be told you have two minutes.

Rev. LOWERY: It may even prove to be impossible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rev. LOWERY: I don't know whether they've got a switch, where they plan to - but the fellow who's giving - Brother Warren - who's giving the invocation, I'm going to time him and see how long he goes. And I'll - I can take my cue from him. If he goes a little over, I won't feel bad about going a little over. But they don't want us to go a little over. Besides, it'll be cold. So, I suspect everybody will be prepared and anxious to hear a brief prayer.

NORRIS: Did President-elect Obama ask you personally to do this?

Rev. LOWERY: Yes, he did. He called me on my cell, and I didn't answer. He left a message on my voicemail. So, I returned the call, which was on his cell, and I caught him. And he answered the phone. And I said, I'm trying to reach the 44th president of these United States. And he said, "Brother Lowery, I believe that would be me."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rev. LOWERY: So, we laughed. And then suddenly, I was silent and so was he. I don't know why he was silent, but it struck me forcefully that, hey, you're talking to - you really are talking to the 44th president of the United States, and he's a fellow that looks like you. And that took me into a moment of strong meditation, and I was deeply moved to recognize what was going on at that particular moment. Not only that, he's inviting me to participate on the - in the inaugural ceremony, and I never dreamed I would see the day when we inaugurated a black president. And certainly, I didn't anticipate the time when I would participate in the ceremony.

NORRIS: Have you allowed yourself to imagine that...

Rev. LOWERY: Yeah. Every time I think about what I'm going to say...

NORRIS: ...experience of standing up on that stage.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rev. LOWERY: Every time I think about what I'm going to say, I get a little stage fright, because you folks keep telling me there're going to be two, three, four million people out there. And then beyond that, there'll be people watching and listening all over the world. And I admit that that has unnerved me just a little bit. But that's why I pray that God will give me strength, courage, and perception and sensitivity, and I can do what he would like for me to do. But it's an awesome thought, just the occasion itself is an awesome - when we were fighting for voting rights back in the '60s, we all felt that one day, there might be a black president. But I don't recall any of us saying that we'd live to see it.

NORRIS: I bet you've been spending a lot of time thinking about your friends right now, people like Fred Shuttlesworth and Ralph Abernathy and Reverend Martin Luther King. What's the...

Rev. LOWERY: Well, particularly Martin and Ralph because they've gone on. Fred is still here. I'm especially thinking about those who did not live to see this day. And because I did, I think I'm obligated to think of them and to pray for them and to pray that they, too, might be a witness in some way. As a matter of fact, when I'm on the Capitol steps, I'm going to look down that Mall. They tell me you can see the Lincoln Memorial. And if I do see it - and I hope I do - I think in my mind's eye, I will also see a profile of Martin, calling the nation to move from the restrictions and limitations of color to the higher ground of character and content of character and competence. And I believe I'll see him smiling, and that inauguration will be the nation's response to Martin's call.

NORRIS: Reverend Lowery, you are known for your speaking style. You're also known as someone who tells it like it is. And I'm thinking about the funeral for Coretta Scott King. You stood in front of the former U.S. presidents and the one sitting president in that hall, and you said, at that point, that there were no weapons of mass destruction over there, speaking about Iraq. But you said that there were weapons of misdirection here in the U.S. You wagged a finger at them at Coretta Scott King's funeral. You talked about millions of people in this country without health insurance, about poverty in this country. I'm wondering if you're going to use the stage to speak truth to power, if we're going to see Joseph Lowery the rabble rouser as well as Joseph Lowery the preacher.

Rev. LOWERY: (Laughing) I hope we're one and the same. I hope I always will speak truth to power. That's what I feel called to do. I believe that my responsibility at the closing prayer is to hopefully, try to petition God to send us home from that mountaintop experience with a sense of solidarity, with a sense of purpose that's directed toward supporting the president that we've put in office, for he comes to office at a tough time in the nation's history. I want to see us build a solidarity that will understand the tough task he's got, and to give him all the support that we possibly can, and ask God to work through him to restore the nation's stability.

NORRIS: Reverend Lowery, thanks very much for speaking with us. Always good to talk to you.

Rev. LOWERY: Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: The Reverend Joseph Lowery, speaking with my co-host, Michele Norris. You can hear Michele and Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep hosting NPR's special coverage of tomorrow's inauguration on most NPR stations and at npr.org.

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