Joe Lowery and the history of a joke that failed

We are in a strange place when, days from a vote to pick an American president and – in Georgia – settle a statewide dispute over charter schools, political discourse is focused on a 91-year-old man attempting to explain a 50-year-old joke.

But that’s where a host of journalists and the Rev. Joseph Lowery had gathered on Friday, in a downtown Atlanta office building at the corner of Auburn Avenue and Absurd Street.

By definition, a dissected joke is a failed joke– no matter how reliable its service might have been in the past. The elder of the Civil Rights era knows this. Throughout his long life, he’s been something of a cut-up.

“I’ll say something at the beginning to relax people and cut through whatever hostility or apprehension there might be,” said Lowery, whose middle years at the height of the movement were fraught with hostility and apprehension.

This was the fellow who helped lead the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott in the ‘50s. He and Martin Luther King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. You do not make people easy about race by ignoring the topic. You do it by confronting it.

Eight days ago, in the small town of Forsyth, Lowery and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, 80, made a stop at a local church. It was part of an effort to boost votes for President Barack Obama in Georgia.

When Lowery’s turn to speak arrived, he dragged out a tried-and-true chestnut. “I told the story of when I was a bad militant, a bad fellow, I said, ‘White folks are going to hell.’ And it always got a laugh from white folks, because white folks don’t think they’re going to hell.

“But then when I got converted and became a preacher and Christian, I changed my mind,” Lowery continued. Only some white people, he decided, were hell-bound.

But a punchline requires bite, and this was it: Given their recent behavior, Lowery said, he’s considering a return to his original position.

The joke dates back to the 1960s, Lowery estimated. I probably first heard it in the 1980s. Diane Glidewell heard it for the first time last Saturday. She’s a writer for the Monroe County Reporter, the local weekly, and didn’t think it was a joke. Or funny.

“I’m frightened by the level of hatred and bitterness coming out in this election,” she quoted Lowery as saying.

Glidewell also wrote that Lowery used the n-word as he condemned the hundreds of thousands of black Georgians who won’t vote next Tuesday, even with an African-American president at the top of the ticket.

Lowery said he used the word “Negro” – and doesn’t employ the other phrase at all. The reporter says she has no audio recording.

Fox News and conservative outlets on the Internet couldn’t resist the headline over the Monroe Reporter article: “Lowery: Don’t think whites going to heaven.”

They focused on the fact that Lowery had delivered the benediction at Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Which was one reason that Lowery responded with his Friday session with reporters, attended by his wife Evelyn and a dozen white, black and tan supporters.

“Obviously, there are people that would like to use anything to get at the president. We’re not stupid. We know what’s happening,” Lowery said.

The name wasn’t mentioned, but there’s no doubt that Lowery also would rather not see his 60-year legacy go the way of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

“I’ve never been more surprised that people didn’t realize I was kidding, and took it and made something nasty of it,” Lowery said. “I would never wish anybody seriously to go to hell. We could never have had the gains in the Civil Rights movement without the support and participation from God knows how many white people. We certainly couldn’t have elected Obama,” he said.

Besides, people like Eleanor Roosevelt, Mother Theresa, Joe Biden, Madonna, Betty Grable and Hedy Lamarr – “You’re too young. Look her up” — all deserve their shot at the Pearly Gates, he said. Ba-dum-dum.

There is another reason worth paying serious attention to this fracas. For a man in his ninth decade, Lowery still wields serious clout in Georgia.

Only hours after the Monroe County Reporter posted its account of his speech online, Lowery’s voice was featured in a series of radio spots condemning Amendment One, the ballot measure to reaffirm state government’s authority to create charter schools – even when local school systems reject them.

The 60-second spots will be aired through Tuesday on stations with African-American audiences. “Don’t let them resegregate our schools,” Lowery says in the ads. He isn’t joking.

African-Americans in favor of the measure, and in search of alternatives to urban school systems, have politely hinted that Lowery is dating himself. “The time has come for us to move beyond the comparisons of education reform efforts to brutally painful and overtly inhumane periods in our nation’s history,” said state Rep. Rahn Mayo, D-Decatur.

There is no doubt that Lowery has learned that humor translates differently across the decades. “I will never use this story again!” he declared, reading from a prepared script.

“That’s probably not true,” Lowery then confessed, off-script. “I like that story. And it’s original. I didn’t steal it from Jesse Jackson, as he has stolen from me.”

Which is a joke — and a good one. Though it’s probably 50 years old, too.

- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider

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192 comments Add your comment

Mitch

November 3rd, 2012
9:14 am

He can try to walk it back all he wants, but the fact is that people like Joeseph Lowery use race-baiting to scare black voters every time an election comes around. Sadly, the only thing interesting about this story is that things haven’t changed.

Phil the Plumber

November 3rd, 2012
9:31 am

Double Standard. Seems like if it was on the other foot, Lowery would be screaming and hollering for someone’s throat. You can explain it as you like, it was racist to the core. Wright, Farrakhan and Lowery are all the same. The only difference between them and the KKK is they don’t wear sheets, they wear robes, suits and bow ties.

ComradeAnon

November 3rd, 2012
9:35 am

Mitch-why come here to comment of you aren’t going to read the article?

Observer

November 3rd, 2012
9:38 am

So if I tell a story or a joke often enough it becomes acceptable no matter how offensive it may be. Bigotry comes in all shapes, sizes, ages and colors.

This is Mrs. Norman Maine

November 3rd, 2012
9:39 am

So basically this Diane Glidewell person doesn’t understand hyperbole or humor and now she’s taken one sentence out of context and whipped into something it isn’t. Didn’t Breitbart do the same thing with Shirley Sherrod? That didn’t work very well for him or Fox News, did it? The really frightening thing is what’s coming out of journalism schools these days.

Lee

November 3rd, 2012
9:47 am

Galloway tries to excuse Lowery’s comment as a joke, but deep down, he knows that if ANY white person of prominence made a joke about “black folks going to Hell”, they would be skewered in the politically correct media – which includes Galloway and the AJC.

Lowery, Jackson, and others have lived off the civil rights largess for the past fifty years. It’s time to unseal those FBI files.

A black guy, a hispanic, and a white guy were on a plane……

Edward

November 3rd, 2012
9:54 am

Never let a fact or context ruin a conservative’s poutrage and ability to get all butthurt over nothing.

Baker

November 3rd, 2012
9:57 am

The problem is that it’s definitely believable that he would say that based on past behaviour.

Baker

November 3rd, 2012
10:01 am

Jim- No kidding he wields serious clout. He did the prayer at the inauguration for goodness sake.

D Right One

November 3rd, 2012
10:07 am

Some of those people Lowery referred to in his joke are still alive and the joke is still relevant. It’s as if we live in bizarro world and those devilish people, black and white, just disappeared. The reporter had an agenda and I don’t believe for a minute that Lowery would use the N word in a public speech.

daphne

November 3rd, 2012
10:19 am

Aw heck, anyone who knows the Rev. Lowery’s history knew the man and got the joke. I’m white, about 40 and voted for Obama, and I’ve received hordes of racist chain e-mails about the Obamas from the relatives back in the Midwest. I also watched Fox News commentators trying to stir up racist resentment shortly after Obama took office.

Ain’t everyone talkin’ about heaven, goin’ to heaven, as Mahalia Jackson sang. That’s true for black, white, tan, yellow, brown, pink or beige. Good writing, Galloway!

Taxi Smith

November 3rd, 2012
10:24 am

It’s always a “joke” when a black makes these kind of racist remarks. When it’s a white guy, he gets pilloried. Tired of it guys.

JK Dolamite

November 3rd, 2012
10:25 am

Lowery said exactly what he meant and has harbored these feeling for years. Its not about walking it back, its not about what Andy Young said “a preacher can’t decide who goes to hell”, its about his actual and real feelings of white people. Regardless of the civil rights movement and what people did to him which were mostly Democrats, attend a black church some Sunday, its about race, slavery and how whitey is gonna go to HELL!. Its about his inner hatred of our fellow brothers and sisters that happen to be labeled white. This is the underlining secret in the black community and some preachers of this era nobody want to talk about. It just came out because Lowery is old and old people’s true feelings come out with age. They are still stuck on slavery, Jim Crow and will never change. They see any issue regarding Barack Obama no matter how failed his policies are as he can’t get anywhere because of white people. He failed to realize, it was whites that put Obama in office and whites that will eventually decide if he remains there. To have those feeling in his heart and claim to represent Jesus is a tragedy but to express them he will answer to the true owner of the Church, Jesus

JK Dolamite

November 3rd, 2012
10:30 am

Hey Daphne, how about all the monkey jokes I got from black chain mails about George Bush and Laura Bush. Get real, blacks are just as racist and whites but the media never reports on this. I had a young white male tell me blacks can’t be racist so I told him to cut off his hair so he would look like a skin-head and walk around MLK or some inner city neighborhood. The police would be doing a homicide investigation on him.

Curious

November 3rd, 2012
10:30 am

Lowery meant what he said just like Romney meant what he said about the 47%.

Dash Riptide

November 3rd, 2012
10:38 am

I know white people who probably aren’t going to hell. Sometimes I wish I was one of them.

NotMe

November 3rd, 2012
10:41 am

This guy has been a big racists for a long time and nothing has changed. It is so ironic that

honested

November 3rd, 2012
10:43 am

Like it or not, the gist of Rev. Lowery’s remarks ring true.

kidding yourself

November 3rd, 2012
10:43 am

He may have felt as though he was joking, becauise he is that comfortable with his views and is desensitized to the feelings of whites today. He encourages black block voting, the very thing that is cosidered racist for white to do. Our president would never have been elected if the “majority” race had not voted impartially. Race relations will never improve in this country until blacks vote contrarilly to Mr. Lowery’s position. He is perhaps subconcioiusly a race-batter till the day he dies.

zeke

November 3rd, 2012
10:48 am

So does this church now lose it’s tax free status???

Satire Goes Two Ways

November 3rd, 2012
10:54 am

Well since the esteemable Joseph Lowery has made it okay I will once again tell every foul mouthed, racially insensitive joke I’ve been led to believe was unacceptable. How ironic that one of the master baiters (of race-get the clever double entendre?) himself has now declared ‘open season’ on his own people. Thanks dude! I don’t even have to glance over my shoulder before I launch ‘em anymore, I can just say, “Hey, dat Lowery dude said dis was okay as long as I called it a joke, Juss keepin’ it real bruh.”

SpaceyG

November 3rd, 2012
10:55 am

Dumb reporters come a dime a dozen. Let’s just call them “squibs.” (You Harry Potter devotees will know exactly what I’m talking about.) It’s way too much to ask that they also incorporate some historical perspective in their literal-minded ways. On the other hand, some chestnuts really do need to be retired in the new millenium.

BTW, isn’t “tried-and-true chestnut” a bit redundant? Less keybpard pounding, please. Otherwise, good post, Jimbo.

Ruckus

November 3rd, 2012
10:57 am

Wonder why Galloway failed to mention that the downtown office building that Lowery held his apology conference was the SCLC building? You know the one where different factions of black preachers have changed the locks several times, gone to court over who’s in charge and pointed fingers as to who’s been stealing the funds white folks donated to the organization.

GFJacket

November 3rd, 2012
10:58 am

When Donna Brazile said “…the problem with this country is white men”, I decided to never vote for another Democrat. Period. If I can’t support the other candidates on the ballot, I simply will not vote. But, I will never vote for another Democrat. Period.

mikeP(roswell)

November 3rd, 2012
10:59 am

BREAKING NEWS…THIS JUST IN!!! A 91 yr old man said something we find offensive..more at 10….really? give me a break..

ragnar danneskjold

November 3rd, 2012
10:59 am

“If you truly believe in the brotherhood of man, then you must believe that blacks are just as capable of being racists as whites are.” Thomas Sowell.

mikeP(roswell)

November 3rd, 2012
11:02 am

Wow…GF..Ive heard too many people make comments I find reprehensible….yet rational enough to not allow them to make a decision based solely on what THEY THOUGHT…dude think for yourself..

Sandy

November 3rd, 2012
11:03 am

The real joke is that there is no heaven and there is no hell. It’s just in your imagination.

GAPeach

November 3rd, 2012
11:03 am

As a white, Georgia native, it’s fine with me for Dr. Lowery to say that some white people might be going to hell (if you believe that a hell exists). I’m as tired as he is of the hatred, vitriol, and fact-free slings and barbs of the right wing. Dr. Lowery has been such a strong moral compass for social justice and the common good. He not only supports rights for African Americans, but stands with and speaks out for women, gays and lesbians, immigrants, the poor and perhaps most important the right to vote. He has shown so many of us the path towards MLKs beloved community.

Sweet William

November 3rd, 2012
11:04 am

I think black Americans are the most racist people on planet Earth.

mikeP(roswell)

November 3rd, 2012
11:05 am

Hell Rag..in some cases just as much…yet…still….how or why should that effect your decision making process…This entire article is about a 91 yr old man saying something others find offensive…i got news for ya…you can go to any “SHADY HOMES RETIREMENT CENTER” and fill your entire notepads with offensive quotes..

B

November 3rd, 2012
11:08 am

Why is it that whites have to be colorblind but blacks keep going back and breaking everything down by race?

HeD.nry

November 3rd, 2012
11:13 am

How does he explain the insults he hurled at George Bush to his face at Coretta King’s funeral? And Eddie Long is just as bad for not putting a stop to it in his pulpit and church. I am no fan of Obama and quite frankly I am praying he is defeated this week. Not because he is black, but because I don’t agree with his policies and I am afraid where we will be if has 4 more years at the helm. But as bad of a president as I think he has been, he still deserves respect because of the office he holds and not to be publicly humiliated and embarassed as Busg was. If Lowrey doesn’t agree with Bush, he should have had a private conversation with him, or at least chosen another forum to discuss it, not at a funeral.

WAW

November 3rd, 2012
11:14 am

Perhaps old preachers from days gone by like Joseph Lowery on the one hand and Billy Graham on the other should say things like, “I’m leaving this election up to the young folks who know more about what’s really happening than an old worn out apostle.” Find fault with Rev Lowery if you want but an equal sharing of Dr Graham’s political antics of late must also be acknowledged. You can’t have it one way.

Are all the Southern Baptist really going to worship the Devil’s brother at the local LDS church this Sunday? That’s the punch line of a current joke. How’d you like that one? Again, you can’t have one way.

JP

November 3rd, 2012
11:15 am

When Lowery’s turn to speak arrived, he dragged out a tried-and-true chestnut. “I told the story of when I was a bad militant, and member of the Klan, I said, ‘Black folks are going to hell.’ And it always got a laugh from black folks, because black folks don’t think they’re going to hell.

“But then when I got converted and became a preacher and Christian, I changed my mind,” Lowery continued. Only some black people, he decided, were hell-bound.

But a punchline requires bite, and this was it: Given their recent behavior, Lowery said, he’s considering a return to his original position.

mikeP(roswell)

November 3rd, 2012
11:18 am

Well Mr. Galloway, Bravo my friend…well done…youve stired the pot by sharing quote from a 91 yr old man…I dont care what color u are you put a mic in front of someone that old…what they hell can u expect?? However if your true objective was to get the white male all pissed this am, then you sir are a genius.!!!..I am sure just like GF Jacket, there are a few more that will also not vote democrat again because of what they read this morning…sad thing is if hannity, Rush, or instigators like you are only modem of politics these narrow minded men hear…”.I will never vote democrat again ” the angry white men say…which is the very reason why Gov. Deal is in office today….

gsmith

November 3rd, 2012
11:19 am

id like to see what would happen to the gov. of new jersey if he said that the jersey shore will remain lilly white after they rebuild…… like that idiot mayor of new orleans said that the city will remain a chocolate city after they rebuild new orleans??? racism only works one way

kidding yourself

November 3rd, 2012
11:19 am

At GaPeach:

What is wrong with being white. I am a white male and have never wronged the black community. White males are the most hated folks in America and I am sick and tired of being blamed for events that happened a century and a half ago. That is an old, tired argument and needs to have run its course.

Patty

November 3rd, 2012
11:25 am

No reverend, “white, black or tan” should be making jokes about who is or isn’t going to hell. That isn’t up to any of us to decide. Like so many of us, he should have set a watch over his mouth. I hope he’s learned his lesson.

Mary Elizabeth

November 3rd, 2012
11:35 am

” ‘But then when I got converted and became a preacher and Christian, I changed my mind,’ Lowery continued. Only some white people, he decided, were hell-bound.

But a punchline requires bite, and this was it: Given their recent behavior, Lowery said, he’s considering a return to his original position.”
===============================================

All I know is that when I read the above sentences, I laughed out loud, myself, this morning, and I’m a white woman in my senior years. Good humor always has a touch of truth within it. Here’s the truth: Today, there is only 1 white Democrat from Georgia sitting in the U.S. Congress. The other Democrats from Georgia are all African-Americans. All the former white Democrats have become Georgia’s Republican members of Congress. Rev. Lowery did not create that unfortunate situation. That switch was the choice of those former white Democrats. And, no one can make me believe that their switch was because of ideological changes. I am too old to believe that political spin. I know why they switched parties, and so do readers – deep inside. And, I say again – that their switch has been an unfortunate (and cowardly) one. Lowery simply wanted present day Georgians to reflect on their choices – and values – through a light, human touch of humor, and well he should have, especially since he is a man of God. (Btw, I am a white Democrat and I will remain a Democrat until I pass from this earth.)

The reporter from Macon appears to lack a good reporter’s needed human understanding of some degree of depth, in my opinion. This unfortunate incidence should be more a lesson for her, than for Lowery.

And, btw, Randys, in your 10:43 am post, if you are going to use a racial slur, at least learn how to spell it.

(That’s also a joke, folks, but it sure rings true – in more ways than one – about Randys, don’t you think?)

RCB

November 3rd, 2012
11:39 am

Jim, I think you spinned this a LOT more than the reporter from Forsyth. Nice try making Lowery appear to be a statesman. He never was and never will be because of stupid comments like that.

Mary Elizabeth

November 3rd, 2012
11:43 am

WAW, Rev. Graham was wrong in what he was trying to communicate; Rev. Lowery was not. President Obama is a Christian, just as Graham and Lowery are. Rev. Graham was misinformed.

peter lindstrom

November 3rd, 2012
11:44 am

And he is a Christian?
He is the same person that said at the last Atlanta Mayor election, “You all must vote for the black candidate”

He is a sorry joke of a person. Looks like he is the one going to Hell.

WAW

November 3rd, 2012
12:09 pm

Mary Elizabeth – Yes, I know the the President is a Christian. My point was that there is spin on both sides that is equally destructive.

Jason

November 3rd, 2012
12:10 pm

I’m white, I voted for McCain, and I’ll vote for Romney this time. Having said that, the joke is funny and it was spoken by a man who has earned the right to speak his mind. The man lived through an era of having firehoses turned on him, dogs loosed upon him, and the tip of the spear of the police power of the state pointed at him for using non-violent political expression to stare down a racist regime and changed people’s minds with powerful words and an enduring decision to turn the other cheek. If that same man has the grace to take that experience and see the humor in it, then I say good for him. There is something very dignified about someone who would probably be justified to use violence or vitriol, but opts instead for humor. To be honest, it embodies a lot of the more noble features of the WASP tradition. It made me like a man who I probably vehemently disagree with about a lot of things politically. Our political landscape needs more humor, more humanity and less shouting.

Veteran Observer

November 3rd, 2012
12:13 pm

Starr Parker, the African-American columnist said it best! When the older leadership of the NAACP PUSH, and the SCLC finally pass on we can make real progress in the black community on education, poverty, and race relations! These “leaders” blame everything on white people and ignore the real issues! They are completely irrelevant these days as represented by Mr Lowery’s comment. This is also why we have a president who has failed because he has grown up with them as his mentors(see Rev. Wright)!

Weetamoe

November 3rd, 2012
12:23 pm

It was no joke. I have heard him say it on other occasions. I have also seen incredibly rude behavior from him at Coretta Scott King’s funeral when he used his time to–instead of delivering a eulogy-deliver gratuitous insults to a sitting president and former president and in so doing dirty the memory of the great woman whose funeral service it was.

WAW

November 3rd, 2012
12:24 pm

Mary Elizabeth – Also – The Republican Party in Georgia was made up of Carpet Bagging Yankees who had moved South and brought their politics with them until the 1968 Democratic Convention. Bond presented an integrated delegation to challenge the credentials of the all white delegation headed by Lester Maddox. The Bond delegates were seated and the Maddox delegates got on a plane headed back to Atlanta. As the story goes (told by someone of the Maddox delegation) the Chairman of the Georgia Democratic Party took the intercom to announce, “Well folks, I think we just became Republicans”.

Robert

November 3rd, 2012
12:24 pm

This is a racist comment by a race-baiter who made a living by dividing people, not uniting them. The liberal media has tried to make Joseph Lowery into some patriarchal figure, but he is not. His recent involvement in lawsuits against cities such as Sandy Springs and Brookhaven have shown, time and again, that he plays the “race card” for power, not for unity. Lowery’s comment is condescending at best…as if HE gets to choose who goes to Heaven or not. It also reinforces bigotry in the minds of the “black church” audience.

I personally go to a church where people come in all colors…white, black, yellow, red. Our church is not organized along race lines, but is there for the purpose of the church…a gathering of Christians for worship, not to make political statements. Even without the race issue, there’s nothing Godly about using religion to play politics. Money changers in the temple should have their tables overturned.

ragnar danneskjold

November 3rd, 2012
12:26 pm

Dear MikeP , thanks for that report on the cost of bananas in China.