Lasting Legacy: Joseph Lowery and the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda

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The passing of civil rights icon Joseph Lowery on March 27 holds special meaning for me and Metro Atlanta Democratic Socialists of America. The front page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution described him as Atlanta’s beloved preacher and the dean of the civil rights movement. In the NY Times obituary, he is referred to as a civil rights leader and top aide to Martin Luther King, Jr.. Both stories note memorable events in Rev Lowery’s incredible life, but one of his major accomplishments is casually passed over.

Rev Lowery’s activism began when, as a young Methodist minister, he led a successful campaign to integrate buses in Mobile, Alabama. He was called upon to help oversee the Montgomery bus boycott. In 1957, Lowery, along with King and Ralph Abernathy, formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conferenc,e which he would then lead for twenty years. He would  survive several assassination attempts  on his life, including a Ku Klux Klan attack that nearly killed his wife, Evelyn. At the funeral of Coretta Scott King in 2006, in the presence of President George W. Bush, Lowery sharply criticized the administration for waging a war in Iraq despite no evidence of weapons of mass destruction. In 2008, he delivered an emotional benediction at Barack Obama’s inauguration and a year later would receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

However, scant attention would be  given to an accomplishment that may constitute his most lasting legacy–the 1998 founding of the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda. This umbrella organization of human rights, civil rights, labor, women’s, youth, and peace and justice groups would advocate for voting rights protection, elimination of barriers to the ballot box, criminal justice reform, quality education, affordable housing, economic development and equal participation in the political process for Georgians of color and underrepresented communities. 

In fact, the Coalition secured progressive gains on a broad range of issues. In the 1990s, Rev Lowery, representing members of the coalition, successfully challenged the constitutionality of the Georgia state flag leading to a major design change. In 2007, after the Atlanta mayor and city council were lobbied by the coalition, a Citizens Review Board was established to investigate allegations of misconduct by the Police Department and Department of Corrections. On behalf of 250,000 Clayton County residents lacking public transportation, a referendum was promoted, subsequently approved by voters, that earmarked a one cent sales tax for the expansion of bus and mobility services and future commuter line for the county. In the area of voter protection, lawsuits were won against the secretary of state for unilaterally eliminating voters from the rolls and discarding absentee ballots where signatures did not exactly match. Efforts to reduce early voting periods have been thwarted while the coalition has effectively petitioned election boards in order to prevent the closure of polling locations.

After the Metro Atlanta Democratic Socialists of America got off the ground in 2005, my chapter joined the coalition. As chapter chair, I attended the weekly meetings that were open to everyone in the community. Helen Butler, the executive director since 2003, provided updates at each meeting on voter registration and education plans, town hall meetings and candidate forums and the litigation status of discriminatory voting laws and policies. Rev Lowery would attend these meetings and provided inspirational messages on what it would take to build the movement. At the end of each meeting, folks would stand up, clasp hands, and the room would ring out with the chant, “We are the chaplains of the common good.” I met many civil rights pioneers who can best be characterized as long-distance runners for peace and justice.

Atlanta DSA hosted one of the coalition’s meeting to describe the work of the chapter, using a power point presentation called “Democratic Socialism: Equality and Democracy.” Helen Butler and several other coalition activists would receive awards at the annual DSA Douglass-Debs Dinner honoring  activists and their work on behalf of the community. Rev. J. Allen Milner, the coalition’s treasurer, who regularly met with Dr. Lowery as his health began to fail, joined DSA. My personal connection with Rev. Lowery occurred at meeting with U.S. Representative John Conyers who came to Atlanta to speak at  the Douglass Debs Dinner and attend a fund raising event the chapter had organized on his behalf. I was also privileged to make presentations to coalition members on the democratic socialist beliefs and politics of MLK and A. Philip Randolph. The coalition sponsored a book signing of my memoir  A Democratic Socialist’s Fifty Year Adventure. Our connections were deep and long-lasting. As Atlanta DSA joins in celebrating Rev. Lowery’s life, we remember his never failing commitment to peace and justice through the vital work of the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda in democratizing governance in Georgia.

Milt Tambor is a former chair of Metro Atlanta DSA and author of A Democratic Socialist’s Fifty Year Adventure.A version of this tribute appears on the Facebook page of the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda