Civil rights icon Rev. Joseph Lowery (center) with City/County MLK Humanitarian Award winners John Quinlan and Jerome Dillard at the City-County MLK observance in Madison in January of 2008.

Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, fondly known as the “dean” of the civil rights movement, worked very closely with civil rights leaders like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Jesse Jackson in a career that spanned more than seven decades. Lowery, an organizer of the March on Washington, co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and leader of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, spent a lifetime devoted to civil rights activism. He passed away over the weekend at the age of 98.

Many people here in Dane County remember that Lowery has a connection to the city of Madison. Mona Adams Winston and Edward Lee, longtime co-chairs of the King Coalition here in Madison, were elated when the civil rights legend told them that he would be able to come to Madison on Jan. 21, 2008 – MLK Day – to be the keynote speaker at the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. City-County Observance at the Overture Center Capital Theater.

King Coalition co-chairs Mona Winston and Ed Lee (Photo by A. David Dahmer)

“When we first found out that Rev. Lowery was coming, it was just unbelievable that someone who actually back in the day – a soldier with Dr. King – was willing to come to Wisconsin in January for our Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration because a lot of the main people were going to Atlanta and Washington D.C. and big cities for their MLK celebrations,” Winston tells Madison365. “To get him to come was just amazing.”

Lowery, whom Coretta King once said had “led more marches and been in the trenches more than anyone since Martin,” delivered a powerful keynote speech that night at the Overture Center as the MLK choir performed and the City and County honored its MLK Humanitarian Award winners. The City of Madison honored Lauren Rock and John L. Quinlan with 2008 Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian Awards and Dane County honored Jerome Dillard with the 2008 Dane County Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Recognition Award.

“He was so eloquent as the keynote speaker at the MLK ceremony. I will never forget that,” Winston says. “But to sit with him at the reception was just as memorable. He was so animated and engaging in his conversation and we all just hung on his every word … just talking about history. It was like opening up a history book and having one of the people jump out of the book.”

Early in his career, Lowery organized protests in the early 1950s aimed at desegregating buses in Mobile, Alabama, and was involved in coordinating the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, a watershed moment in the civil rights movement that ended segregation of the city’s public transportation. Throughout his career, Lowery organized protests, civil disobedience, and political pressure campaigns that helped combat institutionalized racial segregation in the United States.

Rev. Joseph Lowery delivers the keynote address at the annual MLK City-County Observance at the Overture Center Capital Theater on Jan. 21, 2008. (Photo by A. David Dahmer)


“I think it’s awesome that he lived 98 years to tell all of those amazing stories that he told,” Winston says. “For us, to be a part of the history … to be listening to those stories with this amazing man in person …. that was incredible.”


In 2009, Rev. Lowery delivered the benediction at President Obama’s Inauguration and later that year President Obama presented him with the nation’s highest honor, the Medal of Freedom.

Winston remembers how Lowery was responsible for getting her fired up about Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, which she eventually would work on.

“I remember that Rev. Lowery was the first person who really made me feel like Sen. Barack Obama was going to need my help to win the presidency. That’s the way he talked. He was very charismatic,” Winston says. “He had his Obama pin on. Do you remember that? That’s the first time I had seen an Obama pin although we had definitely all heard about him after he gave that wonderful speech at the Democratic Convention.”

“But Rev. Lowery was talking about it like it was going to happen,” she adds. “And we were like, ‘What? A Black president?'”

Rev. Lowery was married to his wife, activist Dr. Evelyn Lowery, for 63 years until her death in 2013. He is survived by their three daughters. “Aligning with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines on COVID-19 prevention and social distancing, plans are underway for a private family service,” the Lowery Family said in a statement. “A public memorial will be held in late summer or early fall.”

“We will always be tied to Rev. Lowery and we will always remember that time we spent together when he came to Madison,” Winston says. “I get goosebumps just thinking about it. I can still remember our good-bye hug. I will never forget it.”