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Civil rights icon Evelyn Gibson Lowery, the founder of a women's empowerment organization and the wife of Martin Luther King associate Rev. Joseph Lowery, has died after suffering a massive stroke a week ago Wednesday. She was 86-years-old.
Lowery's life read like a history book and she played an active role in many of the bellwether events of the Civil Rights Movement, helping to organize the Selma-to-Montgomery marches and founding SCLC/W.O.M.E.N., INC. (Southern Christian Leadership Conference/Women's Organizational Movement for Equality Now) in 1979. Though Lowery had emerged as the backbone behind she and her husband in recent years, as his health declined and he took to a wheelchair, her stroke proved to be too serious for her to survive.
"In the early hours of the morning, surrounded by her family and husband of close to 70 years, Mrs. Evelyn Gibson Lowery made her transition in the comforts of her home," the family said in a statement released Thursday.
The statement went on to explain that Lowery suffered irreversible damage from the stroke and that the family brought her home after medical experts said there was nothing more they could do for her.
Rev. Lowery wrote, "My beloved Evelyn was a special woman whose life was committed to service, especially around the issues of empowering women. She was a wonderful mother and wife and I thank God that she didn't suffer any pain and that I was blessed having her as my partner, my confidant and my best friend for close to 70 years."
Lowery grew up the daughter of Rev. and Mrs. Harry Gibson, activists in Memphis, and her father also was president of the local NAACP chapter. In 1987, eight years after founding SCLC/W.O.M.E.N., INC., Lowery launched the Evelyn G. Lowery Civil Rights Heritage Tour, a two-day bus trip through civil rights sites in Alabama that introduced participants to little-known pieces of history. She also raised money to erect monuments to people who played roles in Alabama civil rights history, including Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King. Through her organization, she created a center for computer training as well as a girl's mentoring program.
Murmurs and prayers reverberated through the civil rights community on social media, by telephone and in person as word circulated that Lowery was seriously ill. Always perfectly coiffed and tailored, and pointedly spoken, she was someone many said elicited respect and awe. Even into her 80s, she was a key organizer of her and her husband's appearances and activities on the civil rights circuit.
Said NAACP chairwoman Roslyn Brock, "Ms. Lowery was a drum major for justice in her own right. Her spirit lives on in the initiatives she founded and in the activists she mentored across the nation."
"Mrs. Lowery's foresight and leadership pushed the envelope of what organizations like the SCLC and the NAACP could do for women and families," NAACP president Benjamin Jealous said.
The daughters of Viola Liuzzo, the Detroit housewife murdered by the Ku Klux Klan as she volunteered during the Selma to Montgomery marches, kept in touch with Lowery and traveled often with her during her annual heritage tour.
They considered the Lowerys as a second set of parents, and Mrs. Lowery often told Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe to brush her hair, Sally Liuzzo remembered.
On a Facebook page dedicated to the memory of their mother, Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe wrote a statement expressing the thoughts of all three women.
"Every breath she took, she took for the betterment of all," the statement read. "She devoted her life to the fulfillment of Dr. King's dream. It is really a miracle to meet a person who is an embodiment of those high, high ideals."
Liuzzo Lilleboe added, "Well done my beautiful angel but I will miss you so much."
Melanie Campbell, president of the National Coalition on Black Civil Participation, said many figures from the civil rights movement would remain unsung heroes if it were not for the attention drawn to them by Lowery's tour.
"We know that our world is a better place because of the lfie's work of Mrs. Lowery and SCLC/W.O.M.E.N.," Campbell said.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the lone surviving organizer of the 1963 March on Washington and former head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, said he heard the news as he was chairing a meeting at the U.S. Capitol.
"She supported her husband in all his work but she was a leader in her own right, born into the struggle through the activism of her parents in Memphis, Tennessee," Lewis said.
Former gang member Donnie Hunter credited Lowery with helping him look around him and to learn from his life surroundings and from others. Hunter eventually became the photographer on Lowery's annual tour when he lived in Atlanta and said that Lowery and late activist James Orange were mentors to him. When Hunter was to accompany Orange on a trip to Los Angeles, his former stomping grounds, Lowery begged Orange not to let him go to his old neighborhood.
"Without her and without Rev. Orange, I wouldn't be here right now," said Hunter, 43, who now lives in Monticello, N.Y. "Now I've got to live up to their expectations."
Edrea Davis, an Atlanta-based media representative who often worked with the Lowerys, said the couple was very supportive to her when both her parents passed away.
Said Davis, "Mrs. Lowery was a quiet warrior who fought for equality with strength, perseverance, dignity and class."