Beside every strong man is a even stronger woman

For a history geek like me, one of the perks of living in Atlanta is learning more about civil rights icons such as the Rev. Joseph Lowery and his life partner, Mrs. Evelyn Lowery.

Early Thursday morning, Evelyn Gibson Lowery, the daughter and wife of Methodist ministers, went home to be with the Lord. She was 88 years old.

To say Mrs. Lowery was fearless, would be an understatement. Men like the Rev. Lowery, legendary for speaking truth to power, couldn’t have done what they did without strong, supportive wives.  These women — such as the late Coretta Scott King, the late Octavia Vivian and Mrs. Juanita Abernathy — were leaders in their own right.

On Sept. 15, Mrs. Lowery was by her husband’s side at 16th Street Baptist Church, at a service to mark the 50th anniversary of the bombing there. A few days later, she suffered a stroke. A native of Topeka, Kansas, Mrs. Lowery met her husband on a blind date while a student at Atlanta’s Clark College.

Like the wives of other civil rights leaders, she was by her husband’s side as often as possible while raising their children and tending to the home front.

When her husband was president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Mrs. Lowery founded the SCLC Women, an organization dedicated to human rights and strengthening families.  

Several years ago, I attended a banquet where the group honored Memphis sanitation workers, who went on strike for better wages and working conditions. In April 1968, the strike brought Dr. King to Memphis, where he stood in solidarity with the workers. While standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, Dr. King was assassinated.

At the SCLC Women’s banquet where the surviving sanitation workers were honored, people marched through the room carrying protest signs that read “I Am a Man,” one of the slogans of the Memphis movement.

While accepting an award from the SCLC Women, actor Forest Whitaker expressed awe at being in the presence of people such as the sanitation workers and  Rev. and Mrs. Lowery, who sacrificed much in the struggle for human dignity and equality.

I first met the Lowerys at a friend’s wedding nearly 10 years ago.  Rev. Lowery was officiating with his usual brand of humor. After the ceremony, he and Mrs. Lowery took time to greet us and other guests. Last year, Mrs. Lowery graciously welcomed me into their southwest Atlanta home for an interview with her husband, who will be 92 in a few days. She ushered me into the den where Rev. Lowery was resting in a green leather chair.

Earlier that day he’d spoken at a news conference about the lack of African-American judges in Georgia. Later, he was planning to attend a banquet where a Latino organization was giving him an award.

Just behind where he was sitting, was a picture of President Barack Obama, who asked Rev. Lowery to give the benediction at his first inauguration. In his typical style, Rev. Lowery began seriously — reciting the words of the Negro National Anthem. He ended with words that lightened the crowd’s mood.

“Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get 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. Let all those who do justice and love mercy say amen.”

In a statement released Thursday, Rev. Lowery spoke with affection about the woman who’d shared his life for nearly 70 years.  She felt no pain at the end of her life, Rev. Lowery said. And what a life she lived — one filled with family, love and service.