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An icon of the civil rights era will deliver the benediction at the inauguration of Barack Obama. Reverend Joseph Lowery was a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or SCLC. He marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr., and says now he's gratified by the political gains he's lived to see. From Atlanta, NPR's Kathy Lohr has more.

KATHY LOHR: The man who will be the 44th president personally called Joseph Lowery to ask him to be part of the inaugural program.

Reverend JOSEPH LOWERY (Founder, Southern Christian Leadership Conference): Of course I accepted. I was honored and humbled to do it, and I look forward to it. I'm very excited about it.

LOHR: The 87-year-old Lowery has been a dominant presence in the civil rights movement for more than half a century. He was born in Huntsville, Alabama, began his civil rights work in the 1950s, and worked for voting rights in the 1960s.

(Soundbite of vintage recording of people singing)

LOHR: After King's death, the Methodist minister continued to work for civil rights, and may be best known for his outspoken nature and his ability to turn a phrase. He outraged some in 2006 when he read a poem at Coretta Scott King's funeral that indicted the Bush administration and criticized the Iraq war.

(Soundbite of reading at the funeral of Coretta Scott King)

Reverend LOWERY: We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over thereā€¦

(Soundbite of crowd ovation)

Reverend LOWERY: But Coretta knew, and we know that there are weapons of misdirection right down here.

LOHR: Lowery was a longtime president at the SCLC and in 1982, he spoke at the group's 25th anniversary meeting.

(Soundbite of SCLC 25th anniversary meeting, 1982)

Reverend LOWERY: We've come a long way. But black-elected officials in this country still only comprise 1 percent of the total number of elected officials. We've got to hold fast to dreams of political justice.

LOHR: Lowery was one of Barack Obama's most ardent supporters, even when many African-Americans across the South were backing Senator Hillary Clinton. He decided to back Mr. Obama after hearing him speak at a voting rights march in Selma, Alabama, two years ago. Lowery says the change he's witnessed in society and in politics is remarkable.

Reverend LOWERY: I'm very proud that people across this country, even in Southern states, chose to vote for an African-American. That's a sign of real progress, and I'm so grateful that I lived long enough to see it come to pass.

LOHR: As the first African-American president, Lowery says Barack Obama will be scrutinized intensely. He knows the selection of Pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation has upset some supporters. But Lowery defends the decision and calls it part of the president-elect's promise to include people with differing political and religious views.

Reverend LOWERY: Oh, I don't think it hurts. I think it'll pass. I think it'll even pass before the ceremony is over.

LOHR: The civil rights pastor says the president-elect has inspired the nation to end hostility and division, and he says the inauguration is the beginning of a new era in America.

Reverend LOWERY: And I hope that in my closing prayer, I can find a way to inspire people to take that spirit and warmth, that feeling of conviviality and brotherhood, take it with us back down into the valley.

LOHR: Beyond that, Reverend Lowery would not reveal just what he will say at the inauguration. All he'll say for now is that he's working on it. Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

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