Lowery Invokes MLK

April 1, 2009
Say "Amen": Lowery&squot;s rousing oratory brought chapel crowd, which included President Richard H. Brodhead, to its feet.

Say "Amen": Lowery's rousing oratory brought chapel crowd, which included President Richard H. Brodhead, to its feet. Jared Lazarus

On a cold Sunday afternoon during Duke's annual Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration, civil rights activist and King's colleague the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery called on the congregation in a packed Duke Chapel to join him in becoming "chaplains of the common good."

To the delight of a highly energetic Duke and Durham community audience, Lowery, one of the leaders of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, led a service that was part revival, part political rally, and part celebration of King's life.

 "What better context than this celebration of Martin Luther King [Jr.] is there to pledge to be like him, a man who was more comfortable serving than being served and had a deep and radical commitment to the common good. This holiday honors him as a man, scholar, preacher, teacher, crusader, healer, and troublemaker. But we can't stop with honoring him; truth be told, he'd be a bit embarrassed by all the attention directed toward him," Lowery said.

"Too often, in our country, we've celebrated the messenger but ignored the message.… Martin was more than a dreamer. That's why we need to move from just social service to social change.… It's nice to help an old lady cross the road—that's something Martin would do. But we should also be checking to see if the streets these old ladies live on are properly paved."

Lowery, who, two days after his Duke visit, delivered the benediction at President Barack Obama's inauguration, admitted that he cried on Election Day. He praised Obama for pledging to use "diplomacy as his primary weapon," rather than "military solutions in countries that have no solutions."

Decrying the "greed and corruption" that led to the current recession, Lowery noted that "there's something wrong with a system where a handful of people have more money than ever, while the rest of us have less than we've ever had."

He took a swipe at supporters of a California proposition to ban same-sex marriage. "Laws are supposed to protect rights, notdeny them," he said.

He also called for the new president and cabinet—as well as all his new Durham "chaplains of the common good"—to work with educators to bring the "strongest resources" to the poorest schools, rather than giving the "weakest resources to the poorest schools."

Lowery's forty-five-minute speech—preceded by music from the 100 Black Male Choir, African drumming and dance, jazz, and greetings from Jewish and Muslim representatives—brought the audience to its feet several times, evoking both laughter and "amens." Joking that he keeps trying unsuccessfully to retire, Lowery said, tongue-in-cheek, "I'm just trying to figure out how to take up an offering from three million people" in Washington.