A civil rights icon who was an aide to Martin Luther King Jr., conducted the benediction prayer at Barack Obama's 2009 presidential inauguration, and led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for two decades has died. Relatives of the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery say the 98-year-old died at home in Atlanta of natural causes not related to the coronavirus, with family by his side, the AP reports. Said to be the "dean" of the civil rights movement, Lowery began his fight for racial equality in the late 1950s, when, as an Alabama pastor, he co-founded the SCLC with King. He was elected president of the organization in 1977, but much of his work escaped media attention in the '80s and '90s, which bothered him, per the Washington Post, which notes Lowery "often said the media thought 'the movement died with Martin.'"
Lowery retired from the SCLC in 1997, and 10 years later became a big supporter of Barack Obama as he ran for president. "We ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back; when brown can stick around; when yellow will be mellow; when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right," Lowery, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, prayed at Obama's benediction. Even after he retired, Lowery continued to fight against poverty, racism, capital punishment, and war, per CNN. In addition to his civil rights work, Lowery was a pastor at Methodist churches for 50 years. "Tonight, the great Reverend Joseph E. Lowery transitioned from earth to eternity," the King Center tweeted Friday. "He was a champion for civil rights, a challenger of injustice, a dear friend to the King family." Lowery is survived by three daughters. (Read more obituary stories.)