Joseph Echols Lowery oral history interview conducted by Joseph Mosnier in Atlanta, Georgia, 2011-06-06.
JL: Well, Dr. King, of course, emerged in Montgomery, uh, leading that boycott. It was the first time that a city with fifty thousand black people had successfully and effectively, uh, implemented a boycott. Uh, [pause] their houses were bombed, uh, threats came, but Dr. King stuck to the nonviolent motif and, and, and led the people to accept nonviolence. Many of them accepted nonviolence because they had confidence in the leadership, not because they were convinced that nonviolence was necessarily the best way. Because I remember in Mobile, some of the ministers that worked with me used to tell me pointblank, “I’m not going on this march with you, because I’m not sure I can be nonviolent.” [20:00] I said, “Well, don’t go. If you can’t be nonviolent, don’t go, because you’ll bring harm to the Movement if you resort to violence. We have to - we have to take clean hands.”
And, uh, of course, Martin’s leadership was recognized. Uh, the Montgomery Boycott for over a year was effective, the first time in our history we’ve been able to sustain that kind of boycott for that long a period of time. So, he was heralded, uh, across the nation and then across the world, as a nonviolent leader. And, of course, his eloquence as a speaker, his personality as a minister and a pastor, was extremely effective, and, uh, he became the natural leader. And when we organized SCLC, it was natural that he was the first person who, who came to mind as, uh, as the president and went on to, uh, to give the kind of leadership that justified our confidence in him.
JM: In those early first few years, late ’50s, for SCLC, much of the day-to-day work through the late ’50s was carried by Ms. Ella Baker, and I wonder if you could reflect, share some recollections -
JL: Ella was, I guess, the first real executive director, fulltime executive director that we had. We had a fellow named M.E. Tilley, who came out of Baltimore, who had done an effective voter registration drive. But he didn’t last long and didn’t - and then, Ella Baker became the fulltime executive director. And, uh, I think history may have overlooked - she was the first woman to give that kind of executive leadership to the Civil Rights Movement and she was very effective.
She, uh, didn’t get along very well with the preachers. Uh, I’m trying to remember what was at the bottom of that. I don’t remember. But, uh, she was a strong woman. And there may have been one or two, maybe, maybe, preachers who had some problems with strong women, like some of you fellows may still, in this time, have problems with strong women. But, uh, she did a good job. She was effective. And out of her leadership and inspiration, students, uh, were inspired and organized SNCC, uh, and they became this young wing of the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement.