A Faithful Heretic: Joseph Lowery and the Politics of the Mass Movement

Rev. Joseph Lowery with Rosa Parks at the National Portrait Gallery (Library of Congress)

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. — Joseph E. Lowery

On the return trip from the Ghanaian independence celebration in March 1957, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King spent an afternoon with the Trinidadian scholar, activist, and revolutionary C.L.R. James. Joining the Kings that afternoon was the Somerset Maugham award-winning Barbadian writer George Lamming. James, Lamming, and the Kings spent over four hours getting to know one another and discussing the Montgomery movement. Excited by the meeting and conversation, James wrote a letter to his former comrades in Detroit offering a critical appraisal of the Montgomery campaign and Ghana’s independence. Among other things, James would write eloquently about “the always unsuspected power of the mass movement.”

Joseph E. Lowery (October 6, 1921 – March 27, 2020) was a lifelong believer in “the always unsuspected power of the mass movement.” Like James, Lowery was loyal to the creative ingenuity and political innovation inspired by the mass movement. Despite his titles and positions, Lowery’s fidelity remained with the community of the faithful — both sacred and secular — who demonstrated an unyielding faith in the morality and necessity to continue the struggle to achieve justice. His vocation as pastor and preacher was not one predicated on membership in what Ella Baker justly termed a “verbal society.” Rather, Lowery understood his vocation as one intimately linked with the community of the faithful in which he would become “personally involved in the concrete, active struggle for liberation, entering deeply into its life, and opening [his] own li[fe] to its risks.”

As third president of Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Lowery offered a unique form of organic leadership to an organization intimately linked with the Black Church. However, the SCLC’s rhizomatic structure, “run and hit” strategy in the words of members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and unique organizational logic, operation, and ethos did not operate as a traditional formal institution. Instead, it operated and acted with “movement spirit.” Such “movement spirit” was an ideal fit for Lowery’s organic leadership — a type of leadership intimately formed, shaped, animated by, and linked with a particular community formation. “Movement spirit” is the energy that propels individuals and organizations to move beyond the calculus of the given in creating the conditions of the new.

Lowery’s life and legacy stand as a testament to his enduring belief that guided his ceaseless quest to create a just and moral society. In many ways, Lowery captures the essence of James’ critical observation in that this unassuming United Methodist pastor and preacher provides a unique perspective for thinking “the always unsuspected power of the mass movement.” Indeed, although his six decades of activism has evaded sustained engagement in the historiography of the modern Black freedom struggle, Lowery offers scholars a critical archive to confront the multiple and complex meanings of the Black freedom movement.1

The constitution of mass movements is not determined a priori. Montgomery is a case in point. The Montgomery movement featured a union leader, a college professor, a school teacher, and the broad Black associational network of Montgomery. Likewise, the creation of the SCLC represented tendencies from the broad Black and progressive left — Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, and Stanley Levison — and progressive Black Christianity — Martin Luther King, Jr., Joseph Lowery, Ralph Abernathy, and C.T. Vivian. The amalgamation of multiple theo-political tendencies, strata of African American civil society, political ideologies and imaginations, and ensemble of organizations and associations represents the substance of the Black freedom movement and its constitution as a mass movement. This protean context provides an appropriate setting to begin to critically think about the exemplary life, thought, and practice of Joseph Lowery.

In Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land, Lowery writes, “Throughout my life, I have sought to apply the moral imperatives of my faith to social, economic, and political problems.” Lowery offers us an exemplary model of what can be called the “faithful heretic.”2 Lowery is faithful in the sense of his unending loyalty and allegiance to the inviolability of the human person and human dignity. Lowery is heretical in the sense of eschewing all existing forms of social, economic, and political organization that deny the worth, value, dignity, and variety of human being and belonging in the world.

As a faithful heretic, Lowery articulated and elaborated a practice that sought to expand the idea and imaginary of democracy from a formal set of political prerequisites and prerogatives to a veritable way of life, or rather, ways of life and living. Indeed, Lowery as a faithful heretic moves akin to the manner in which Edward Said describes the intellectual as “an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public.” As Said continues, “this role has an edge to it, and cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than reproduce them), to be someone who cannot easily be coopted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d’être is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.”

To begin to critically think of Joseph Lowery within a practice of faithful heresy challenges scholars to rethink the enduring role and function of Black religious activists and intellectuals within mass movements. Lowery offers us an opportunity to rethink this relationship and how and in what ways religious language, ideas, and institutions act with mass movements. Indeed, Lowery’s political theology is guided and informed by the positions, actions, strategies, and tactics undertaken in attempting to build a just and moral society with a mass movement. This formulation offers a powerful descriptive and explanatory model with normative force that can critically comprehend Lowery’s lifelong action and thought. To be sure, Lowery’s practice of faithful heresy is not merely preoccupied with the Church proper or the Black pastor as vanguard leader — which, coincidentally, mirrors contemporary accounts of the Black radical intellectual as vanguard leader. Rather, he forges a modality of living and praxis that critically engages the very structures and categories of power in society and brings to bear the force of a theologically inspired critique against the form, function, and organization of politics and society.

Joseph Lowery held fast to the spirit and the letter of his critical statement, “Christianity did not perish with Christ’s crucifixion. Nor did the movement die with Martin.” Lowery continued his freedom journey in the decades following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. In his May 10, 1972 testimony to abolish the death penalty before a subcommittee of the House Committee on the Judiciary, Lowery prophetically stated, “The truth we cannot ignore is that we have been executing innocents since we began this process …”3 The “truth” guided Lowery’s radical internationalist vision in the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa, deep commitment and solidarity with the Palestinians, and dedicated alliance with the international movement for nuclear disarmament. His statement at the 2007 US Social Forum in Atlanta elegantly captures his decades-long commitment to justice within the United States: “Our national dilemma today is not technological retardation but moral deficiency. We have a moral deficiency in establishing priorities when putting our technological advances to work for the common good.”4

To be sure, Lowery’s practice was not without contradictions, most notably, his tilted support for the confirmation of Clarence Thomas. For Lowery, domestic and international mass movements for justice served as a veritable pedagogy of democracy. Not a democracy anticipated within the cartographic dreams of imperial American democracy. Rather la démocratie à venir — a democracy to come. A democracy that is not expected and accounted for by the calculus of the already existing, but rather one which comports with a cultivation and ethos of a “movement spirit” when a people are free to become new humans and embody a new spirit of democracy. That is, an/other praxis of democracy as a way of life beyond the grammar of American democracy — sutured as it is to the myth of the nation-state and truncated to a singular notion of the human and the citizen.

Perhaps no image best captures this sense of Joseph Lowery than the one in which he is sitting between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Wyatt Tee Walker at the 1963 SCLC Conference in Richmond, Virginia. Sitting in the pulpit of the historic First African Baptist Church, a space, as Elsa Barkley Brown notes, that served as “a foundation of the black public sphere,” Lowery stares forward as King and Walker lean over in conversation. Quiet. Solemn. Earnest.  Sitting between freedom’s dreamer and freedom’s architect sits freedom’s faithful heretic — the one who will continue the struggle of freedom in deep fidelity to the spirit of the mass movement. Lowery continued the promise of the mass movement that so animated C.L.R. James on that March afternoon in 1957 — “the always unsuspected power of the mass movement.”

It is in the spirit of the life and testimony of Joseph Echols Lowery, a faithful heretic, “that all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen.”5

  1. A notable exception is Deric A. Gilliard, “Joseph Lowery and the Resurrection of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference,” Unpublished Master of Arts Thesis, Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia, 2012 and Simon Stow, “Agonistic Homegoing: Frederick Douglass, Joseph Lowery, and the Democratic Value of African American Public Mourning,” The American Political Science Review, 104.4 (November 2010), 681-697.
  2. This formulation is informed by my reading of Anthony B. Bogues, Black Heretics, Black Prophets: Radical Political Intellectuals and Walter Kaufmann, The Faith of a Heretic. See Corey D. B. Walker, “On (T/the) Word and Flesh: The Theopolitics of Knowledge in Black Heretics, Black Prophets: Radical Political Intellectuals,” The C.L.R. James Journal 12 (Spring, 2006).
  3. Joseph E. Lowery, Testimony before Subcommittee No. 3 of the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, May 10, 1972, Congressional Digest (Washington, DC 1973), 16.
  4. Darryl Lorenzo Wellington, “A Grassroots Social Forum,” The Nation, August 13, 2007, 17.
  5. Herb Boyd, “Rev. Lowery makes it plain,” The New York Amsterdam News, January 29-February 4, 2009, 4.
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Corey D. B. Walker

Corey D. B. Walker is Visiting Professor at the University of Richmond. On July 1, 2020, he will join the faculty of Wake Forest University as the Wake Forest Professor of the Humanities.

Comments on “A Faithful Heretic: Joseph Lowery and the Politics of the Mass Movement

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    What a great writer!!!

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