MARTIN, Tenn. – BBC's Matthew Bannister interviewed Henrietta Giles, a lecturer of communications at the University of Tennessee at Martin, concerning her work with Civil Rights Activist Rev. Joseph Lowery, university officials report. Lowery died Friday, March 27, at the age of 98.
According to a university press release, Giles' interview aired April 3 on the BBC radio show "Last World," which honors influential figures who have recently passed away.
The interview can be heard on BBC Radio 4.
Giles said she, as an African American woman in the South, looked to the work of Civil Rights activists like Reverends Martin Luther King Jr. and Lowery as guidance in her fight for justice and equality.
“I had always admired him just from the work that he did,” Giles said of Lowery. “He became this fixture of someone who was always working in the Civil Rights Movement, who was always fighting for people who didn’t have a voice.”
Later in her life as she began collaborating with Lowery on various projects, such as co- authoring his biography “Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land,” Giles felt that the “bigger-than-life character” she had admired for so long would become someone she’d actually get to know.
“He was quick with the snappy comebacks that would throw me off guard. … It was always something really funny that you wouldn’t expect him to say...” During the interview, officials report, Giles shared stories from Lowery's life, talking about how hard he worked for equality for African Americans and the criticism he faced daily because of his work. His perseverance validated the character she'd grown to respect.
The trials of growing up as an African American of Alabama in the 1920s and being a founding father of the Civil Rights Movement came to a head when he gave the benediction at the inauguration of Barack Obama, the release states.
“It was a full-circle moment for him as sort of an older African American seeing the first black president of this country. It was a full-circle moment where you heard a lot of people saying, ‘I never thought I’d live to see the day that this would happen,’ and this was a similar sentiment that Rev. Lowery shared with all of his work during the Civil Rights Movement that that was such a momentous moment in time, moment in our history to see that take place,” said Giles.
Even though Giles and Lowery worked together on his book, the two didn't meet until the first book-signing almost three years after beginning their work, having only spoken through phone calls and email.
Giles told university officials that it felt like they'd been lifelong friends.
Lowery also participated in multiple podcasts and a documentary Giles produced about black sacred music. In the decade the two had worked together, the most important lesson she took away from her time with Lowery was that it doesn't matter how old you are, you are always capable of doing what is right and fighting for justice. “I learned … not to stop fighting, not to stop trying to speak up for those who can’t speak up, for those who don’t have a voice or whose voice has been suppressed. Because even though he was older, I would dare say he fought up until the end for people who suffered injustice.”
Giles said the last time she saw Lowery, he was sitting in his living room, surrounded by the awards he'd received for his accomplishments during his lifetime, like the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The two were working on their interview for the documentary.
Giles continues to believe in the work Lowery accomplished in the shared fight for equal rights and the effect he had on everyone he interacted with. “I think that’s what I hope people remember about him, he fought until the very end. He was 98 years old and was still fighting.”