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January 12, 2005

Martin Luther King Day is more a 'holy day' than a 'holiday,' activist Joseph Lowery tells crowd

By Louise Donahue

Civil rights activist Joseph Lowery delivered a message of hope leavened with humor at the 21st annual Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Convocation on Monday, January 10.

Photo: Joseph Lowery

The Rev. Joseph Lowery urged the nation to honor what Martin Luther King stood for. Photos: Don Harris, UCSC Photo Services

Photo: crowd

From left, former UCSC employee Belita Magee is joined by Duane Garner, senior mail processor, and Denise Gray, Dining Services food service manager, at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium event.

Responding to a standing ovation as he stepped up to the podium at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, the retired minister joked to the audience, “sit down, before I take up an offering.”

Rev. Dr. Lowery, who with Martin Luther King helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957 and led the organization for 20 years, said he considers Martin Luther King Day more of a “holy day” than a “holiday.”

Describing King as a “scholar, preacher, crusader, and prophet,” Lowery said King “had a fire in his belly that fire hoses couldn’t wash out,” a reference to the old police tactic of using fire hoses against some civil rights demonstrators in the South.

Lowery said he thinks King would join him in encouraging the nation to go beyond honoring King the man, and instead honor what he symbolized: a national commitment to freedom, truth, and justice.

“We will not let them place King into a rotunda of irrelevancy,” Lowery said. “This holy day provides an opportunity to redefine this nation.”

Entering the debate over values in the wake of the recent presidential election, Lowery said the nation must reject “twisted values” that place profits over people, or send “smart bombs on dumb missions.”

“It’s time for us to get our priorities in order,” Lowery said. “How can we sponsor free and fair elections in Iraq when we can’t even have them in Ohio?”

“We need a revolution of values,” he said, adding that “values have to embrace love. No one is excluded.”

A retired Methodist minister, Lowery was wary of the shift to government funding of faith-based initiatives. “I think that the church must stay independent and be the channel that God speaks to us without interference by the government. He who pays the fiddler is going to call the tune, one way or another. I think they’re buying support.”

Asked during a question-and-answer period about fear, Lowery said he relied on his faith at such times. “God gives you the strength to go on despite your fears,” Lowery said. He noted that King often told him he wouldn’t live to see 40, and King was assassinated at 39. “But he never let the fear that he wouldn’t make 40 deter him.”

Lowery used the area’s redwood trees to reinforce a message promoting interdependence, noting that the trees’ roots, though not deep, overlap each other, adding to the trees’ strength. “When you mess with one redwood, you mess with the whole doggone forest,” Lowery said. “There is no path of escape for one of us that doesn’t intersect with all of us,” he said.

Despite his misgivings about the Iraqi war, violence at home, and the country’s direction, Lowery remains optimistic overall.

“I’m satisfied that change is gonna come.”

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Convocation is cosponsored by UCSC, the City of Santa Cruz, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, KUSP Radio, Inner Light Ministries, and the Santa Cruz Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP.

See earlier Currents article

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