On March 9, 1964, the unanimous US Supreme Court issued its decision in the case of New York Times v. Sullivan, revolutionizing freedom of the press by requiring “actual malice” in defamation suits involving public figures. The case began when a fundraising ad for the civil rights movement appeared in the New York Times, criticizing violence in the segregated south. L.B. Sullivan, an obscure Montgomery commissioner unnamed in the ad, claimed that criticism of the police harmed his reputation. The Rev. Joseph Lowery is the last surviving figure in the case, and he was an accidental defendant.
The names of Lowery and three other Alabama ministers were added to the ad at the last minute. Even though they had never seen the ad nor approved it, they were named in the libel suit in order to keep the case in Alabama courts, where an all-white jury quickly awarded $500,000 to Sullivan, the largest libel award in Alabama history at the time. Libel cases against civil rights activists and the media that covered them multiplied and threatened to bankrupt the civil rights movement.
The Rev. Joseph Lowery is a legend of the civil rights movement. He helped lead the Montgomery bus boycott, and with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. , Lowery founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and later served as its president for two decades. In 2009, Dr. Lowery delivered the benediction at the inauguration of Barack Obama, and later that year Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, declared: “Born and raised in Jim Crow Alabama, preaching in his blood, the Reverend Joseph Lowery is a giant of the Moses generation of civil rights leaders.”
At the age of 92, he continues to be active. This interview with Dr. Lowery was conducted via email with the help of his daughter, Cheryl Lowery, the Executive Director of the Joseph and Evelyn Lowery Institute for Justice & Human Rights at Clark Atlanta University.
Question: You testified that you had no knowledge of the ad in this case, and also that you didn’t even get the request for a retraction until after the lawsuit was filed. When did you find out about the ad, and did Bayard Rustin and John Murray ever apologize to you for adding your name to it?
Joseph Lowery: They did not need to apologize because we were not offended.
Q: How were your attorneys for the trial chosen and paid for? Did the four defendants meet to discuss legal strategy, and did you coordinate with the New York Times on your defense?
JL: The New York Times would not let us on their bond because they didn’t want to be exposed to Alabama law. There was no communication with them.
Q: There were many allegations of racism at the Sullivan trial, including the all-white jury, references by the lawyers to cannibalism in the Congo and Sammy Davis Jr., calling the black lawyers “lawyer” rather than “Mr.”, how the word “Negro” was pronounced, and the judge calling for “white man’s justice” and segregating the courtroom after some black and white spectators sat together. What do you remember about the racism of the trial?
JL: I remember very vividly the constant references to Sammy Davis, Jr., by the plaintiff’s attorneys because he had just married a white woman.
Q: You noted on C-SPAN (see the video, at 51:08) that you didn’t mention your hometown of Huntsville in your testimony for fear that they would seize some of your family’s property. How concerned were you that the hundreds of thousands of dollars sought in these lawsuits would affect your finances?
JL: Very concerned. My family had property in Huntsville so I mentioned Madison…Madison County. It kept my family property out of it.
Q: When law enforcement came to take your 1958 Chrysler, can you describe what the scene was like? Was it a surprise to you, or do you expect this to happen? And was the verdict in the Sullivan case a surprise to you?
JL: We were sure something was going to happen, but were not sure when or exactly what. I just remember my three daughters crying at the door at the car being taken away. They were traumatized and really confused about our only car being taken away. I was not surprised about the verdict. We expected to lose the case in Montgomery court. Our hope was in the Supreme Court.
Q: Did you think that the civil rights movement in Alabama was being targeted in this lawsuit, or do you think this case was aimed purely at the media and the four of you were brought in purely for jurisdictional diversity, to keep the case in Alabama courts?
JL: I think the Alabama politicians welcomed the opportunity to keep the case in Alabama; involving us gave them standing in Alabama.
Q: Did these lawsuits change the rhetoric that you and others in the Civil Rights Movement used? Did you avoid references to specific people, places, and incidents for fear that it would lead to litigation?
JL: No, the case did not affect our behavior at all.
Q: At the Supreme Court, you were represented by two very prominent lawyers, William Rogers and Judge Pierce. How did they get involved in the case, and did you speak with them about the legal strategy they used?
JL: They were kind and interested enough to volunteer their services. We were very grateful for their participation.
Q: William Rogers, in the final statement of the oral argument in the Sullivan case, declared: “if this case should stand then the cause of civil rights will be set back a great many years.” Do you agree? What might have happened to the Civil Rights Movement in the face of all these defamation suits?
JL: I think these cases gave our oppressors temporary reloading material, but only temporary.
Q: What do you think of the impact of the Sullivan decision on freedom of the press and free speech?
JL: I think the Supreme Court decision was a very positive factor in advancing the cause of free speech—a victory for free speech.