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Singing the Lord's Song in a Strange Land

Singing the Lord's Song in a Strange Land

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by Joseph E. Lowery

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From the earliest meetings of the Civil Rights Movement to offering the benediction for the first African American President of the United States, Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery has been an eyewitness to some of the most significant events in our history. But, more important, he has been a voice that speaks truth to power--inspiring change that moves us forward.



From the earliest meetings of the Civil Rights Movement to offering the benediction for the first African American President of the United States, Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery has been an eyewitness to some of the most significant events in our history. But, more important, he has been a voice that speaks truth to power--inspiring change that moves us forward.

In Singing the Lord's Song in a Strange Land, you will find Dr. Lowery's most enduring speeches and messages from the past fifty years including Coretta Scott King's funeral and the benediction given at President Obama's inauguration. This book, however, is not simply a collection of words. It is the heart of a movement and a call to a new generation to carry the mantle--for all people.

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Library Journal
Lowery (former president, Southern Christian Leadership Conference), well known as a soldier in the Civil Rights Movement and an associate of Martin Luther King Jr., leapt to broader public notice when he delivered the benediction (included in this collection) at President Obama's inauguration. This volume is a kind of best-of gathering of the writings, reflections, memories, and short sermons of the preacher who spoke at Coretta Scott King's funeral. Lowery is wonderfully plainspoken, presenting the great riches of his experiences and memories. VERDICT A delight, speaking to both the recent past and the present, for students of the civil rights era, pastors, and all congregations.

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Singing the Lord's Song in a Strange Land

By Joseph E. Lowery

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2011 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-3034-4



When the Montgomery Bus Boycott began, I was pastor of the Warren Street Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama, and serving as president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. I had met Martin Luther King, Jr., at a seminar in Boston before he was called to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, and later in Montgomery at a meeting sponsored by the Alabama Council on Human Relations. I made some remarks at the meeting and so did he. Afterwards, we congratulated each other with the usual preacher-to-preacher excesses, and yet with sufficient sincerity that indicated we were genuinely respectful of each other. We promised to stay in touch and even pledged to invite each other to preach in our respective churches. I was his senior by a few years—seven—both in age and in pastoral experience. We developed a friendship that lasted until his tragic death on April 4, 1968. "Through many dangers, toils, and snares ..." But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Following the outlawing of the NAACP in Alabama (for refusing to divulge its membership rolls to conniving forces who would surely have found ways to harass them), the Montgomery Improvement Association was organized in Montgomery; the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights in Birmingham; and the Alabama Civic Affairs Association in Mobile. Martin headed the Montgomery group; Fred Shuttlesworth, the ACMHR; and I was elected to lead the Mobile organization. In the heat of the movement in the mid-1950s, we would communicate with each other regularly by telephone, and somebody suggested we should meet at least once a month in Montgomery to coordinate, cooperate, and commiserate. We usually met on Monday, though not always. We met in Montgomery because it was the center of the state. Ten o'clock in the morning was the designated hour. I would leave Mobile at six o'clock and arrive in the capital at ten. Fred would leave Birmingham at eight and arrive at ten. Martin and Ralph Abernathy would leave their homes in Montgomery at whatever time and arrive at the meeting place at whatever time. Always closer to eleven than ten. We were glad to see one another, and after swapping tales about our great worship services and the great sermons we preached, we would get down to the serious business of the movement. C. G. Gomillion, a professor at Tuskegee and a leader in the movement there, joined us for a spell. I think he got tired of hearing us relive our preaching experiences of the Sunday before, and he dropped out. It was our loss, for he brought great intellectual strength to the table.

These meetings were the genesis of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Somebody suggested that we ought to expand the circle and call a meeting of all the folks who were engaged in movements, mostly around bus segregation in the South. The call went out, and we gathered in Atlanta in the fall of 1956. Kelly Miller Smith from Nashville and C. K. Steele from Tallahassee, Florida, were among the preachers who met us at Ebenezer Baptist Church (Daddy King's church) to discuss the feasibility of a South-wide organization to give strength to the movements in local communities and maximize national impact. The meeting was disrupted by the bombing of Ralph's church in Montgomery. Fortunately (no thanks to the perpetrators) no fatalities or injuries were sustained. Undeterred by cowardly acts of terrorism, we met in late January through early February in New Orleans, and SCLC was born, although that name came through a process of semantic evolution. Voter registration as well as transportation were major thrusts and therefore were included in the name, which finally evolved to Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Considerable debate took place over whether the inclusion of Christian meant exclusion of members of other faiths. We concluded that members of any faith could belong so long as they embraced the principles of the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the efficacy of nonviolence in a movement for achieving social change.

The Montgomery bus boycott was the center and core of the newborn civil rights movement, which brought new dimensions to the struggle for liberation and first-class citizenship. The most significant among these, in my opinion, was the element of self-determination. When more than fifty thousand Black folks decided that the back of the bus was no longer tolerable and that, no matter what anybody said, they were not going to ride in the back of the bus, that was a child born in the crib of the old Confederacy and rocked into the cradle of an emerging democracy. It did not matter what the courts said, or what the city council said, or what legislative bodies did or did not enact: we were finished with the back of the bus!

Martin's leadership in the boycott, which brought him into international prominence even then, made him the natural choice for the first president of the newly formed rights group SCLC. Not even the most cynical could dispute the indisputable: the call to the pulpit of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was divine intervention. It was a perfect union: Martin by training and temperament; Montgomery by geographics and demographics; and the buses by the universality of usage and the commonality of abuses. (Other cities experienced "back of the bus policies," including Mobile, where I pastored. Mobile was as racist as Montgomery, but its racism was not as toxic as Montgomery's and Birmingham's.) The bus (public transit) was the common denominator in the community. Nobody needed to persuade the people that Rosa Parks's refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger represented the feelings of all "colored" patrons, for everyone who ever rode the bus had felt the sting of abuse and denigration. They were all tired of having to stand up so whites could sit down. Even Black folks who didn't ride the bus had a mama or an auntie or a brother or a papa who did and who had drunk from the bitter cup of humiliation they all shared in this common denominator, this racial discriminator, this dehumanizer. So, experientially and vicariously, all fifty thousand took the boycott personally and seriously! It was the most effective mass movement in our history! There were earlier boycotts, but none lasted as long or worked so well. In addition to the common denominator factor, the movement had the inspired leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., who brought, in eloquent fashion, the moral imperatives of our faith to bear on the critical areas of racial oppression. We were no longer content to just preach about making heaven our home, but felt called to make our homes here heavenly. That certainly included living with dignity and resisting the dehumanizing policies and practices that drove us to the back of the bus, the front of the train, the balcony of theaters, the end of the line, the basement of opportunities.

The elements of faith and self-determination were new factors that brought strength and excitement to the movement. Later, Black students would catch the spirit of self-determination and take destiny into their hands. They would reject the inconsistency of being able to buy safety pins at any counter while being restricted to buying a sandwich from the "colored" counter, if any. The students were roughed up, to put it mildly, at some places and beaten viciously at others. No matter, they had "made up minds," and the back of the bus and segregated lunch counters in five-and-dime stores were history. It would take the courts much longer to make up their minds, but Black folks in Montgomery and in North Carolina and across the South rendered the only verdicts that mattered—no more segregation, no more back of the bus!

While the courts did eventually issue clear decisions on segregation in public transportation, I'm not sure we ever really learned what the courts would say clearly about the sit-ins. The 1964 Public Accommodations Act came much later, and the matter passed into history. That is not to say that everyone everywhere had heard about desegregation in public places as late as the last of the 1970s and early 1980s. I visited sugar plantations in Louisiana during the Carter administration seeking to find a handle for helping workers escape the torture of life on those plantations, and I ran into an eating place near Lafayette that had a "colored" entrance in the rear of the premises! A strange land!

A strange land requires a familiar song. That's why members of the community of faith sing the Lord's song in this strange land.

So the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was born in New Orleans in early 1957. The philosophy of nonviolence was translated and transposed into techniques and strategies for opposing segregation and discrimination based on race and color. Nonviolent direct action is more than passive resistance; it is dynamic insistence; it is sometimes civil disobedience to man's unjust laws; but it is also spiritual obedience to the laws of a higher power. It is refusing to get up so that a white person can sit down; it is also joining white people on the voting rolls so we both can enjoy the fruits of representative government. It is not only changing the color of government; it is seeking to change the character of government as well. The struggle against segregation in public accommodations exploded in Birmingham, where Fred Shuttlesworth provided courageous leadership that laid the groundwork for the massive movement that followed his invitation to Martin to bring the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to Birmingham. The Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) headed by Shuttlesworth saw the need for a national movement ushered in by SCLC and Martin. New dimensions of nonviolent direct action blossomed in Birmingham, which was known as the "Johannesburg of the South." While Montgomery introduced the element of massive withdrawal, Birmingham initiated the mighty force of mass jailins. Never in our history had we challenged the fearful hammer of imprisonment held over our heads. It was an intimidating and cruel factor in southern life. In most southern communities, law enforcement was lily white at every level. Prison was dreaded by Black folks and for good reason. All manner of abuse, sometimes fatal, went unchallenged behind prison walls, where only the eyes of white officials could gaze, and the word of a Black prisoner (when one dared speak) meant little or nothing against that of white officials. But in Birmingham the sting was removed or at least softened for a while. There weren't enough jails to hold the throngs of adults and then, thank God, youths who marched as sainted pilgrims into the cells, which (like Paul's and Silas's) were transformed into prayer cells and sanctuaries. The back of segregation in public accommodations was broken.

I sat in Governor Clement's office in Nashville when he called the president of Morrison's Cafeterias in Mobile, Alabama, and urged him to desegregate his cafeterias in Nashville, where sit-ins were shattering the "peace" of the city. The president of Morrison's (now Piccadilly) turned the governor down and told him that he would never see his restaurants serve Blacks in nonsegregated fashion. If memory serves me correctly, the Public Accommodations Act took effect in the summer of 1964, and Morrison's, along with other restaurants in the South, were desegregated. The president of Morrison's passed away shortly thereafter. He kept his word!

No right of citizenship is more sacred than the right to vote. And so, board and staff met with Martin in Birmingham in 1964 to strategize for a campaign to gain the right to vote. Selma, Alabama, was chosen as the base community. It was in the Black Belt of Alabama, which had a majority Black population but had no Black elected officials and had only a handful of Black citizens registered to vote. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had begun a campaign, but the racist courts had forbidden them to even assemble peacefully. We decided to strengthen their efforts. The rest is colorful history. The ugliness of racist oppression was personified in Sheriff Jim Clark. The beauty of a struggle for right and righteousness was personified in the demonstrators at the courthouse, on the bridge, in the streets and jails.

Montgomery gave birth to massive withdrawal; Birmingham, to massive jailings. Marion and Selma were the birthplaces of the pilgrimage from Selma to Montgomery for the right to vote. Hosea Williams and John Lewis led the Bloody Sunday march. Martin led the pilgrimage those historic fifty miles to the steps of the capitol, where he asked the eternal interrogative: How long? And answered: Not long! At the close of that speech in March 1965, Martin named a committee to take the demands of the march to the governor. Governor Wallace said he would meet only with Alabama residents. I was pastoring in Birmingham so he named me to chair the committee, which included businessman A. G. Gaston, lawyers Orzell Billingsley and Fred Gray, and University of Tuskegee president Dr. Luther Foster, among others. The National Guard had been federalized, and a general was in charge. I asked if we had been cleared to climb the steps to the door of the capitol to take the document to Governor Wallace. The general made a phone call, and I assumed his nod meant we had been cleared. But when we started up the steps, the blue sea (state patrol officers) blocked our progress. I looked at the general, and he barked some military commands, and uniformed members of the national guard stationed themselves in front of the troopers and placed their bayonets across their chests and barked some military sounds. The blue sea parted—and we walked through on dry land up the capitol steps. There, the governor's secretary said he would take the petition. I refused. We hadn't walked fifty miles to give the demands to the governor's secretary. We walked away. A few days later the secretary called and said the governor had decided to meet with a few members of the committee, the chair not included! All or no one at all, the committee retorted. A few days later the entire committee met with the governor for ninety minutes.

And then there were two! Two monumental pieces of legislation: the 1964 Public Accommodations Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. One wiped away the stain of legalized segregation in public places, while the other opened a new world of political emancipation. When Martin died in 1968, there were only a few hundred Black elected officials; today the number approaches ten thousand. Black voters have made the difference in critical elections nationally as well as in state and local governments. The face of government has changed forever!

On April 4, 1968, the hate-monster of domestic terrorism fired a shot in Memphis that echoed around the world. Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed. We may never know exactly who did it, but we know what did it. One year earlier in New York's Riverside Church, Martin described the triple-headed monster that plagued civilization: militarism, materialism (greed), and racism. Martin's death ignited fires of varied stripes across the nation. They killed the dreamer and put a severe hurting on the dream. The dream survived; the hurt remains. Martin's indelible stamp on SCLC rendered Ralph Abernathy's job difficult to say the least. To many, the movement died with Martin. Christianity did not perish with Christ's crucifixion. Nor did the movement die with Martin. It was crippled, yes, but God moves, still. We will always miss his eloquent voice, but the presence of his message and his mission continues to motivate and inspire.


Excerpted from Singing the Lord's Song in a Strange Land by Joseph E. Lowery. Copyright © 2011 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Joseph E. Lowery, a minister in the United Methodist Church, is an activist in the American civil rights movement.  He served as the third president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from 1978-1998, after Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and his immediate successor, Rev. Dr. Ralph David Abernathy, and participated in most of the major activities of the African-American Civil Rights Movement of the '60s.

In addition to speaking at Coretta Scott King’s funeral and giving the benediction at President Barack Obama’s inauguration, Rev. Joseph E. Lowery is most recently noted for winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His numerous other awards include: the NAACP award at its 1997 convention for “dean of the civil rights movement,” and Lifetime Achievement Award.  He also received the Martin Luther King Jr. Center Peace Award and the National Urban League’s Whitney M. Young, Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.  Ebony has named him one of the 15 greatest black preachers. 

Lowery has also received several honorary doctorates from colleges and universities.  In addition, he was given the Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. On his 80th birthday in 2001, the city of Atlanta changed the name of Ashby Street to Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard, Atlanta Public Schools established the Joseph E. Lowery Lecture Series on Civic Engagement and Clark Atlanta University founded the Joseph E. Lowery Institute for Justice & Human Rights.
Henri Giles is a writer and award-winning television producer based near Nashville.  She works on national television programs and produces projects for corporations and non-profit organizations.

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Singing the Lord's Song in a Strange Land 2.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is the same man that syas all white people are going to hell...do you really want to know whay he thinks? Let's stop seeing each other by color.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I certainly am interested in the historical figures of the Civil Rights movement but I found myself offended by the sweeping generalizations about white people and found that surprising from someone who had lived through the same generalizations about black people. I was hoping for a book that promoted the equality of all. I was mistaken.