Rev. Lowery Honored to Participate in Inauguration

Civil rights legend on giving the benediction at Obama's swearing-in ceremony.

Jan. 19, 2009— -- Reverend Joseph Lowery, who will give the benediction at President-elect Barack Obama's swearing-in ceremony Tuesday, said he's excited and nervous, but mostly "humbled to have been asked to play a part."

"There are so many emotions," he told "Nightline" today. "I'm still overwhelmed by, by what has happened. Even though I watched it unfold and played a small role in it, I'm still not sure it's real. But it's not possible for everybody to have the same dream on the same night, so it must be real."

Lowery said he hopes to catch a glimpse of the Lincoln Memorial during the ceremony, and will be thinking of his friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"I think in my mind's eye, I'll see a young 34-year-old preacher calling America to move beyond the, the limitations and restrictions of color to a higher level of character," he said. "And that ceremony Tuesday will be the nation's response to Martin's call because this election is a clear and marvelous example of the nation moving beyond color."

Watch live coverage of the Inauguration all day Tuesday and go to the Inauguration Guide for all of ABC News' coverage details.

Lowery recently underwent back surgery and arrived at the interview in a wheelchair, but his enthusiasm and passion belied his 89 years. In many ways he represents a link between a painful past and a hopeful present.

Born in 1921 in Alabama, in the heart of the segregated south, Lowery still recalls being punched by a white police officer as a young man leaving his father's store. He went on to be instrumental in the creation of the Voting Rights Act, the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and one of Martin Luther King Jr.'s closest advisers. He was also an early supporter of the Obama campaign.

The president-elect calls Lowery part of the Moses generation, those founders of the Civil Rights movement upon whose shoulders this generation can now stand. Lowery says he's proud of his role in the movement, but wants to keep looking toward the future.

Speaking about the famous "I Have a Dream" speech, Lowery said he's troubled that some young people view King "as just a dreamer."

"It's a powerful oration, it's a powerful message," he said. "But I think, sometimes, we may have tucked it away in sentimentality and taken away its, its tragedy, taken away its sadness. It's triumphant, but there are moments in a movement which are sad."

Lowery on Rev. Rick Warren

The election of an African American to the presidency is "a giant step, but it isn't the whole journey," Lowery said. "The election of one person to one office, even if it's the most powerful office on the planet, does not solve all the problems related to race relations."

Among the problems facing the African American community, Lowery cited the comparatively low median income and the disproportionate number of blacks in the U.S. prison population.

"We've come a long way, there's no question about it, but we've still got miles and miles to go before we sleep."

Lowery had harsh words for other members of the black community who felt Obama wasn't prepared to be president, saying that they were living with a slave mentality.

"Martin said, don't judge people by color -- he was talking to white people to not judge black people by color," he said. "He was also talking to black people not to judge white people by color. But he was also talking, again, to black people to not judge each other by color, and not be too quick to, to let the old mentality hold you back in thinking that he's not ready. That, I think, is a leftover from, from another era."

For his part, Lowery thinks Obama is "more than ready," but he also said there's "no question" a time will come when he'll be angry at and disagree with his president.

"I already have some questions about some of his appointments," he said. "But I trust his judgment. He knows more about these people than I do, so I trust him. But I'm sure that in the advocacy community, you must speak truth to power ... and we must be prepared to, to hold accountable those who hold the reins of power, no matter what their color."

Some have questioned the president-elect's judgment in choosing the other speaker at the swearing-in, evangelical preacher Rev. Rick Warren.

"I really hold [Warren] accountable for some of the nasty things he's said about gays," Lowery said. "I think it's far beneath his stature as an outstanding Christian pastor to say these things."

But despite their differences, Lowery said, "I do not object to the president trying to keep his promise to bring in people with different beliefs and, and diverse attitudes toward controversial issues. I think it's the only way we are going to get together."

Obamas Represent 'Renewal of the Dynamics of Family'

During the presidential campaign, Obama was criticized for his relationship with his former pastor the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Lowery believes that many of Wright's statements were taken out of context, and said, "I think that prophetic preaching ofttimes call the country into accountability. And some people can't deal with that."

When asked in what context any pastor would say, "God damn America," Lowery replied, "Well, what he was saying was that in the Scriptures, the word of God does condemn nations that lift up swords against other nations. And that was just a pretty graphic way of, of putting what the Bible says in, in milder terms that he who lives by the sword is going to perish by the sword, whether that's an individual or a nation. So, in a sense what he was saying was ... the word of God condemns the aggressor. So, Brother Wright put in graphic language, which became toxic to some people, but in milder terms, the same message is in the Bible. God does condemn war."

Lowery has been criticized for some of his own words at the 2006 funeral of Coretta Scott King, when he spoke out against President George Bush and the war in Iraq.

"At a black funeral, we always celebrate the life of the deceased and then challenge those who are still living," he said.

He hopes that the Obama presidency will continue to challenge people, and said that his election sends a powerful message around the world.

"The thing that moved me more than anything else was when Barack and Michelle and Sasha and Malia walked out on that stage Election Night as a family," he said. "What a grand impactful message that should send to black families, that we need a renewal of the dynamics of family in the black community. ... So, strengthening the family, I hope will become the message of change and the great impact of his election, in America, in the black community. If it does, I'll shout Hallelujah from heaven after I'm long gone."

The president-elect called on the nation to honor King today by acts of service, but Lowery said that alone is not enough.

"I don't want us to stop there," he said. "We do a disservice to Martin if we simply see him as an agent of social service. He was that, but he was also an agent of social change. And it's nice to help old ladies cross the street in memory of Martin, but to complete the task let's see if the streets are paved where she lives, in the poor neighborhood. Martin would be very concerned about that, to see if her Social Security and her health care are in order and adequate.

"I think social change must not be left out of celebrating Martin Luther King's birthday. He was not a glorified social worker. He was a non-violent militant, a Christian activist. Martin would not be happy if we honor the missionary and dishonor the mission."

Lowery is only allotted two minutes to speak at the swearing-in, and said that he's thrown out a few drafts of his remarks already. "Hopefully, the Lord will give me the edited verse," he said.

"I think I want to call people to move from ceremony to sacrament. Ceremonies end with the benediction; sacraments begin with the benediction. And I'd like to see America take that spirit of solidarity that I think would be so prevalent at the ceremony, just take it back to our homes and our churches and our workplace and our mosque and our temples, and translate it into behavior and attitudes and values and support the president in a very difficult time.

"And I'm going to ask God to help restore our stability and to work through our leadership, to mend our brokenness and heal our wounds. I think that's my job. I hope I can do it in two minutes."