Rev. Joseph Lowery: What Makes a Civil Rights Leader?



  • Students will demonstrate knowledge of key facts of the Civil Rights Movement – and think critically about the makings of a leader – by creating a "body biography" of a leader in the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Students will create career development plans for their own future lives as leaders for social justice.

Materials Needed: 

  • Internet access or copies of biographies of Civil Rights Movement leaders from and a selection of library books about the Civil Rights Movement
  • Posterboard (one sheet for every three or four students in your class)
  • Markers

One of the jobs of a teacher is to prepare students for their future careers. In the age of high-stakes testing, it sometimes seems that preparing students for the workforce is the only thing we're asked to do.

Inauguration Day is, in many ways, a break from that. For one day, the nation stops to listen to its moral leaders – to poets, activists and members of the clergy who have been selected, by a future president, to represent America. In most cases, these are people who found their greatness by choosing to serve others, a choice that forced them to forge new career paths all their own.

Rev. Joseph Lowery, one of two pastors chosen to pray at the inauguration, is a good example. There is no question that Lowery was a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement. Yet when he started his career, there was no job description for "civil rights leader." Martin Luther King, Jr., Lowery and others in the movement created the role of the non-violent American political leader almost from scratch, using only a handful of precedents and role models as their guide.

This lesson plan is designed to inspire students to think about what makes a civil rights leader – and to think about how they can become the social justice leaders of their own generation.

Before class, draw an outline of a human figure on each of your posterboards. A simple "gingerbread man" figure will work fine. Just make sure the figure is large enough for students to write or draw a number of things inside it.

At the beginning of class, remind your students of the significance of an invitation to appear in the Inauguration. The entire nation watches this ceremony, and the inauguration often sets the tone for an entire presidential administration. When someone is invited to speak at this event, it is a sign that she or he has accomplished something significant.

Remind your students that Rev. Joseph Lowery spoke at the inauguration. Lowery was described in the media as a civil rights leader. But what does that mean? What does a person do to gain universal respect as a leader of an important social movement? What qualities must this person have, and what actions must this person take, to achieve this distinction?

Divide your students into groups of three or four and give each group a piece of posterboard and markers. Distribute, to each group, one copy of the History Makers biography (or other short biography) on Joseph Lowery. Each group should also get copies of brief biographies of two other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Leaders could include Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Rosa Parks or any number of other figures from the Civil Rights Movement.

Tell students they are going to create a "body biography" of a civil rights leader. A body biography is a picture that illustrates the unique characteristics of a specific person through pictures and text. For instance, in drawing a body biography of Langston Hughes, a student might sketch a light bulb inside Hughes' head (to show that he was a man of ideas) draw a musical note in his heart (to express the lyricism of his poems) and add a pointing finger to his hand (to show that he pointed the way for others).

Tell students to use the short biographies in front of them to generate a body biography of a civil rights leader. What is in this person's head and heart, and what sort of actions does this person perform? What is the "background" behind the figure? What is the figure "standing" on? Students can go to the Internet, or to library books you've provided, for further biographical details on civil rights leaders.

When they have completed their body biographies, students should share them with the rest of the class, explaining the images and words they've included and explaining why. Afterward, have students discuss the items their body biographies have in common, and write those common items on the board.

Remind your students that the Civil Rights Movement didn't just consist of ministers or professional activists. People from all walks of life came together to create it.

As homework, ask your students to write out a "career development plan" to guide their own future careers as world-changing activists. Drawing on the insights from the body biography exercise, ask students to write one paragraph on each of the following topics:

My cause
What I need to read
What character qualities to I need to develop
Skills I will need
What I can do for my cause today

Students can share their plans with the class the next day. 

Extension Activity: 

Students can make notes while watching Rev. Joseph Lowery's delivery of the benediction at Pres. Barack Obama's inauguration. What items were mentioned, either in the prayer or in the introduction of Lowery, that connect to the qualities students discovered in their body biographies?