ATLANTA — The Rev. Joseph Lowery was one of the first believers that a black senator from Illinois could become president, and Barack Obama was among those adding his thanks to the civil rights icon Sunday night during a tribute to the 90-year-old’s legacy.
Lowery, whose birthday was Thursday, was praised for his continued fight against hunger, poverty, racism and injustice. He has lived to see an end to segregation and the rise of the nation’s first black president, and says there is still work for him to do on issues of social justice and equality.
In a brief video tribute for the hundreds in attendance, Obama thanked Lowery for his friendship and counsel.
“I don’t know where I’d be without your support and advice,” Obama said. “I don’t know where this country would be without your leadership.”
Obama awarded Lowery, who turned 90 on Thursday, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010. Lowery was an early and staunch supporter of the president during his historic 2008 campaign for the White House and gave the benediction at Obama’s inauguration.
Lowery told the audience that he believed America would “come home to herself” before 2012 and re-elect Obama.
“America’s going to realize that for the good of the union, for the good of the nation, she needs to tear away from those who would lead us to self-destruct,” Lowery said, adding, “The tea party ain’t my cup of tea.”
Obama’s video was introduced at the Atlanta Symphony Hall by his special adviser, Valerie Jarrett, who spent time with Lowery on the campaign trail three years ago.
“In those early says, Rev. Lowery had the audacity and the optimism to believe that a skinny guy with a funny name could be the president of the United States,” Jarrett said. “He didn’t just believe it, but he put his heart and his soul and his elbow grease into making sure that it happened.”
Attorney General Eric Holder said Lowery preached compassion and inspired courage.
“Dr. Lowery’s words have called forth and brought out the best in generations of Americans,” Holder said.
Holder, who is also the country’s first African-American to hold his position, told Lowery he was rededicating the Department of Justice’s commitment to civil rights work.
The lieutenant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has a portrait in his home that bears the words, “I was kept alive to be a witness.”
Indeed, Lowery has outlived King and many other civil rights-era contemporaries. Earlier this week, Lowery mourned the death of his friend and comrade, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, who died at age 89.
Members of the King family were on hand to celebrate the man they know as “Uncle Joe.” Also there were several of his comrades in the civil rights movement. Ambassador Andrew Young said Lowery “never left the scene” after King was assassinated in 1968, leaving the future of the civil rights movement uncertain.
“When Martin passed on and went to glory, many people slipped,” Young said. “But there were still struggles to be wages when there was no press around.”
Congressman John Lewis said Lowery remained and helped liberate a people and a nation.
“I want to thank you for your leadership, for your vision, for your courage, for your inspiration,” Lewis said. “Joe, my brother … I love you.”
Sunday’s event was the climax of tributes to Lowery. Last month, Delta Air Lines put his name on the side of one of its jets in his honor.
Lowery took the stage at the end of the celebration. With his wife at his side, he thanked the crowd for the outpouring of support.
“If I had known it was this much fun, I’d have been 90 long before now,” Lowery quipped.