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

Rev. Joseph Lowery, who delivered the benediction at the first inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009, also marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Civil Rights Movement. He was among the many activists who cleared the way for the election of the first African-American president.  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 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.
Grade Level


At the end of the lesson, students will be able to: 

  • demonstrate knowledge of key facts of the Civil Rights Movement—and think critically about the makings of a leader. 
  • create career-development plans for their own future lives as leaders for social justice.
Essential Questions
  • What makes a civil rights leader? 
  • What skills do civil rights leaders possess?
  • Enduring Understandings: A civil rights leader is someone who leads the fight for change and social justice and uses skills to motivate others to do the same.
  • Internet access or copies of biographies of Civil Rights Movement leaders from www.thehistorymakers.com, including History Makers biography (or other short biography) on Joseph Lowery, plus two additional leaders for each group of three or four students. Those leaders may include Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Rosa Parks, or any number of other figures from the Civil Rights Movement. 
  • A selection of texts about the Civil Rights Movement (Perspectives for a Diverse America’s anthology contains several to choose from, including the transcript of Rev. Lowery’s speech..) 
  • Poster board (one sheet for every three or four students) with an outline of a human figure drawn on each one. 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. 
  • Markers


advocacy [ ad-vuh-kuh-see ] (noun)  the act of working for a cause   

apartheid [ uh-pahr-tahyt ] (noun)  a former policy in South Africa that segregated people according to race 

consortium [ kuhn-sawr-tee-uhm ] (noun)  a group of people or organizations joining together 

desegregation [ dee-seg-ri-gey-shuhn ] (noun)  ending the practice of segregating people by race 

Inauguration [ in-aw-gyuh-rey-shuhn ] (noun)  a ceremony in which an elected official is inducted into office


Suggested Procedure

1. Begin by telling students how significant it is to be given a role in a presidential inauguration. The whole nation watches this ceremony, and the inauguration often sets the tone for the presidential administration. When someone is invited to speak at this event, it is a sign that she or he has accomplished something meaningful. 

2. Next, explain that Rev. Joseph Lowery spoke at the 2009 inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama, and that Lowery was described in the media as a civil rights leader. Ask students: “But what does that mean? What does a person have to do to gain 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?” 

3. Divide your students into groups of three or four and give each group markers and a piece of poster board (with an outline of a human figure already drawn on it). Give 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. 

4. Tell students they are going to create a “body biography” of a civil rights leader. Explain that 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).  

5. Refer the class to the brief biographies and tell students they will use the information in those bios to generate a body biography of a civil rights leader. Get them started by asking thought-provoking questions: “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 use the Internet or library books you've provided for further biographical details on civil rights leaders. 

6. When students have completed their body biographies, ask them to share their work with the rest of the class, making sure to explain the images and words they've included and why they chose those words and images. Afterward, have students discuss the items their body biographies have in common. Write those common items on the board. Remind your students that the Civil Rights Movement didn't just consist of ministers or professional activists—that people from all walks of life came together to create it.

Common Core State Standards: R.1, R.7, R.9, W.2, W.4, SL.1, SL.2, SL.4 


Extension Activity

1. Invite students to take notes while watching Rev. Joseph Lowery's delivery of the benediction at President Obama's first inauguration. Ask: “What items were mentioned, either in the prayer or in the introduction of Lowery, that connect to the qualities that you discovered in your body biographies?” 

2. As homework, ask 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 do 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.