NORTH BERGEN, NJ – (March 30, 2020) America lost a Civil Rights champion last Friday evening when Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery, a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, passed away at age 98. For the ILA, his passing is especially poignant, because 19 years ago, Rev. Dr. Lowery joined with more than 5,000 protesters who marched on Columbia, South Carolina’s State Capitol to protest the incarceration and unjust treatment of the ILA’s Charleston Five.
Rev. Lowery, an ordained Methodist minister who served as pastor for over a half century, worked with other Civil Rights legends like Dr. Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson, began organizing protests in the early 1950s aimed at desegregating buses in Mobile, Alabama. In 1957, he and a number of other African American ministers co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
The Charleston Five were five members of the ILA from the Port of Charleston – Kenneth Jefferson, Rick Simmons, Peter Washington, Elijah Ford and Jason Edgerton who were arrested in January 2000 after protesting the use of non-ILA labor to unload a Danish Ship. Their incarceration set off an international Civil and Labor Rights campaign against the anti-union and often racist leadership at the South Carolina State House.
Rev. Lowery joined other Civil Rights and Labor Leaders in June 2001 on a march to the State Capitol Building in Charleston, South Carolina to rally in support of the ILA’s Charleston Five.
“To have a legendary Civil Rights Champion join our March in support of five ILA members, known historically as the Charleston Five, will go down in ILA history as one of our most shining moments,” said Harold J. Daggett, ILA International President. “Rev. Joseph Lowery was a social justice icon and his support of the ILA helped free those five brave ILA members.”
“Rev. Joseph Lowery was already a civil rights icon long before the Charleston Five struggle,” added Kenneth Riley, President of Local 1422, ILA in the Port of Charleston and an International Vice President. “He understood, just as Dr. Martin Luther King did, that workers’ rights are civil rights, rights that must be fought for and preserved.”
ILA members at the Port of Charleston had set up a peaceful protest line in January 2000 to protest Nordana Line, a Danish Shipping Line, attempting to use non-union labor to unload labor. South Carolina’s notoriously anti-union Attorney General at the time, Charlie Condon, first brought State Troopers to Charleston to engage the ILA protesters. When Kenneth Riley, the president of ILA Local 1422 went down to the picket line to keep the situation from escalating, he was beaten by State Troopers and carried off to the hospital.
The LA members who had attempted to defend Riley, their ILA Local President, against the State Troopers batons, were arrested for their actions.
Local police later dropped charges against ILA members, but Mr. Condon convened a Grand Jury and brought new charges against the five ILA members. The Attorney General sought to use the Charleston picket line violence to crush the ILA and further weaken organized labor in South Carolina.
Four of the five members of the Charleston Five were African-American and Rev. Lowery clearly understood motives behind South Carolina’s Attorney General hard-handed tactics. Rev. Lowery had taken on Gov. George Wallace in the 1960s and understood the need to join the Charleston Five protest March.
“When AFL-CIO representative Jimmy Hyde took me to meet Rev. Lowery, it took only a few minutes before he had fully assessed the situation in Charleston and had committed himself to joining ‘The Fight to Free the Charleston Five’,” said Riley.
“On that hot summer day in Columbia, South Carolina, when all of their labor supporters rallied at the Statehouse,” recalled Riley, “Rev. Lowery showed up with more than a dozen buses of labor and community activists and led the march through the streets and onto the Statehouse grounds.
Kenneth Riley remembers his address that day in front of 5,000 plus protestors. “The words he spoke that day were electrifying to all who heard him. I am extremely grateful that I had, in my lifetime, the opportunity to walk shoulder-to-shoulder with a giant, a legend of the Civil Rights movement – the Rev. Dr. Joseph Echols Lowery.”