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The Rev. Dr. Joseph E. Lowery played key role in launching SPLC’s legal battle against Ku Klux Klan

The Rev. Dr. Joseph E. Lowery, who died on Friday at 98 years old, was a longtime friend of the Southern Poverty Law Center and played a leading role in the SPLC’s first lawsuit against the Ku Klux Klan in 1980.

Lowery, a chief lieutenant of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and one of the most monumental figures of the civil rights movement, also delivered a stirring keynote address during the 1989 dedication of the Civil Rights Memorial, which was commissioned by the SPLC and built outside its main office in Montgomery, Alabama.

“To the nation, Dr. Lowery was a towering figure who helped shape the course of history, and to the SPLC he was a beloved friend and a man whose unbending courage inspired our decades-long legal battle against white supremacist groups,” said Lecia Brooks, chief workplace transformation officer.

It was Lowery’s defiance of the Klan – which was regaining strength a decade after the civil rights movement – that led to the events of March 26, 1979.

Despite threats of violence, Lowery led a march in Decatur, Alabama, near his hometown of Huntsville, to support leniency for a Black man with mental disabilities who had been convicted of raping a white woman.

In a scene reminiscent of the violence that had met Lowery and other activists years earlier, the peaceful marchers were attacked by some 100 robe-wearing Klansmen wielding bats, axe handles and guns. The bullets whizzed by Lowery, but two Black marchers were shot, and others were beaten.

Afterward, the FBI investigated but failed to find enough evidence to support charges against the white supremacists. More than a year later, the SPLC filed a civil suit against the Invisible Empire, its leader, Bill Wilkinson, and a number of the group’s members. It was a novel approach to fighting the Klan from an organization that had been using the courts to stamp out vestiges of Jim Crow that remained after the civil rights movement.

SPLC investigators uncovered evidence that persuaded the FBI to reopen its case, and nine Klansmen were later convicted of criminal charges.

The Decatur litigation – Brown et. al. v. Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan et. al. – would go on for nine years. Finally, a settlement was entered in U.S. district court on Nov. 21, 1989. The defendants were required to pay damages, perform community service, and refrain from violence or white supremacist activity. There was one more stipulation: Five of the Klansmen had to attend a two-hour course on race relations and prejudice – taught by Lowery.

Just two weeks before that settlement, on Nov. 4, 1989, Lowery had brought the audience to its feet while giving the keynote at a banquet held for family members of the 40 men, women and children whose names were inscribed on the Civil Rights Memorial. The Memorial was dedicated the next day before some 5,000 people, including Julian Bond, Rosa Parks and many of the civil rights activists who had stood alongside Lowery and King. Later, Lowery’s late wife, Evelyn, led numerous delegations to the Memorial.

“Dr. Lowery’s messages of love and justice will reverberate for generations,” said SPLC Interim President and CEO Karen Baynes-Dunning.

Photo by AP Images/Susan Walsh