Two people who I thought never got the credit they deserved, the Rev. Joseph Lowery and Little Richard, died recently, and I haven’t mentioned them in this space — my bad.
When I teach lessons on the Civil Rights movement, I make it a point to highlight the unsung heroes like Lowery, who was one of the many from the era that got lost in the light that emanated from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Lowery, who called Nashville home for many years, was one of the founding ministers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that King led until his assassination in 1968 in Memphis.
Lowery became the group’s president in 1977 and held the position for 20 years.
As a civil rights leader, he managed to have something that many of his contemporaries didn’t have, longevity. He was 98 when he died March 27.
His rise to prominence within the movement began in the early 1960s, when Lowery became one of the four defendants in a defamation case brought by an Alabama state election official whose name was mentioned in an ad in the New York Times that quoted Lowery and the other ministers by name.
An all-white jury in Alabama found the men guilty of defamation of character and ordered them to pay $500,000 each.
The case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court and, in a landmark decision Sullivan v. New York Times, the Court ruled in favor of the preachers and the newspaper.
The decision set a higher standard of proof in defamation lawsuits brought by public officials against regular citizens.
It said that public officials must prove that a defendant knowingly and maliciously made false statements about them.
His stature was further enhanced following the 1965 voting rights march from Selma, Ala., to the state capitol in Montgomery, now known as “Bloody Sunday,” when he was chosen as chairman of the committee that took the group’s demands to Alabama’s racist governor, George Wallace.
It took a cohort of National Guard soldiers to get Lowery and his group past the throng of state troopers blocking the doors to Wallace’s office that day.
Reflecting on the moment some 33 years later, Lowery would say that “Moses had the Red Sea; I had the blue sea.”
During his time as leader of the SCLC, he expanded the organization’s civil rights activities to include fighting for rights of wrongly accused black and brown people, against the Klan and apartheid in South Africa.
In my mind, I still have the image of him being handcuffed and led away from the South African Embassy in 1984 after leading a protest March that blocked and entrance or exit from the building.
His message during these marches often reminded people that the Martin Luther King who had a holiday wasn’t the man some people have made him into:
“They have made Martin a glorified social worker, and they have almost made our young folks believe that all Martin did was go around dreaming. He was a nonviolent militant. He was a Christian radical, and so am I.”
He showed his militancy side like at the funeral of Coretta Scott King in 2006, when he spoke out in opposition to the Iraq War, with President George W. Bush sitting behind him in the pulpit.
In a scene that makes me wish that Bush was still in the White House, and something that wouldn’t happen with President Donald Trump, Bush hugged Lowery as he left the pulpit.
Lowery later said his intention was to offer a loving correction in the tradition of the black church.
By the late 2000s, Lowery said he was on the verge of thinking his friend’s dream was still a ways off when he heard a young man named Barack Obama speak.
In Obama, he said that he saw a young man whose words tapped into the heartbeat of the people, just like the great speeches of the civil rights movement did.
He became one of the first members of the old vanguard to support Obama in his bid for the U.S. Senate and the presidency.
Obama chose Lowery to deliver the benediction at his presidential inauguration in 2009, and awarded Lowery the Presidential Medal of Freedom later that year.
My favorite Lowery story happened during a “get your life together” seminar with some young black juvenile delinquents. The good reverend got more real with them that anyone expected.
After showing them a document on the Civil Rights Movement that featured a much younger Lowery, he got up to say a few words. He asked them how they liked it.
After getting the expected relies, he pointed his finger in their direction and told them that if they didn’t get anything out of what they saw to remember this: Me and those other folks didn’t take all those a-- whippings so that you could go out here and act a d--- fool.
He screamed at them, “If you don’t get your life in order, everything we did is in vain.”
His words to those young misguided black kids moved me as much as the first time I heard and understood King’s line about black people being given a rubber check.
LITTLE RICHARD NEVER GOT HIS JUST DUE
Although he was part of the first group of artists to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and is one of the founders of the genre, Little Richard, who died May 9 in Tullahoma, never really received his just due.
Look at any list of the greatest rock and roll artists of all time, and his name will be there.
But a few other performers like James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry, The Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and The Beatles perennially will be ahead of him.
Most of them did not become the artists they became until they heard and saw him perform.
Here’s how one obituary put it: “In rock’s infancy, Little Richard was the unstoppable pacesetter, the pompadoured wild man whose flamboyant showmanship and incendiary spirit of abandon — “a-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-wop-bam-boom” — would drive the music for generations.
He sang, but more often shrieked with falsetto whoops and an electrifying gospel fervor. He pounded the piano with one leg in the air.
He often climaxed his shows by climbing on top of the stage speakers, leaping offstage to run through the crowd or tossing articles of clothing to the audience. Any of that sound familiar?
Those were not the only ones who emulated him. Rhythm and Blues artists like James Brown, Otis Redding, Joe Tex and Don Covay copied Little Richard’s harsh singing style early in their careers.
Artists like Prince, Elton John and David Bowie added much of Little Richard’s outrageous, unusual, startling and over-the-top stage demeanors, along with their androgynous sexuality at different points in their careers to him.
Prince in the late ’90s even had his hairdo. Before that, all them recorded or sang his song in concert.
Here’s a shout-out to Mick Jagger for admitting Little Richard’s impact.
On social media, he wrote that Little Richard was “the biggest inspiration of my early teens. … When we were on tour with him, I would watch his moves every night and learn from him how to entertain and involve the audience, and he was always so generous with advice to me. He contributed so much to popular music.”
To his credit, Little Richard never missed an opportunity to remind the world of who he was and where he should be in the rock-and-roll universe.
When Rolling Stone magazine put together their list of the greatest rock artists a few years ago, they asked other artists to write the tributes for the artists selected.
Little Richard demanded to write his own: “I appreciate being picked one of the top 100 performers, but who is number one and who is number two doesn’t matter to me anymore. Because it won’t be who I think it should be.”
The Rolling Stones started with me, but they’re going to always be in front of me. The Beatles started with me — at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany, before they ever made an album — but they’re going to always be in front of me. James Brown, Jimi Hendrix — these people started with me.
“I fed them, I talked to them and they’re going to always be in front of me.”
Not on my list, Little Richard. It’s you and Chuck Berry all day every day.
Rest in power, gentlemen!
Hi, Momma Lois.
TONY KENDALL of Hazel is a writer, teacher, actor, playwright and sports fanatic. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.