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Interview with Rev. Joseph Lowery, 50 Years after New York Times v. Sullivan

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. The Rev. Joseph Lowery is the last surviving figure in the case, and at the age of 92, this civil rights legend continues to be active. This interview with Dr. Lowery was conducted via email with the help of his daughter, Cheryl Lowery, Executive Director of the Joseph and Evelyn Lowery Institute for Justice & Human Rights at Clark Atlanta University. Read the entire interview at www.academeblog.org.

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 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: 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.