Ralph David Abernathy

Aug 27th, 2011 | By | Category: Activism, Faith & Religion
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1926-1990  Ralph David Abernathy was an inspirational church pastor and an important activist in the struggle for civil rights. His leadership role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and his alliance with Martin Luther King, Jr., helped spur desegregation and create a more promising future for African Americans in the United States.

An Ambitious Beginning

Abernathy was born on March 21, 1926, in Lindon, Alabama, 90 miles outside Montgomery. His father, William Abernathy, was the son of a slave who worked as a sharecropper and went on to build a thriving 500-acre farm. A leader in the county, the senior Abernathy was a church deacon and the first African American to serve on a grand jury. One of 12 children, Abernathy exhibited evidence of inheriting his father’s leadership skills from early on. By age seven, his intent was to eventually join the church. At age 18, he was drafted into the Army and served in World War II, quickly earning the rank of sergeant. Following the war, he attended Alabama State University where he received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, and his political awareness began to blossom. He was elected president of the student council, and led protests to secure suitable student living conditions and quality food in the dormitories.

Abernathy remained committed to the ministry, and his ambition led him to couple his religious training with graduate studies in sociology from Atlanta University. After finishing, he briefly became minister of the Eastern Star Baptist Church in Demopolis, Alabama, and Dean of Men at Alabama State University. At age 26, in 1951, Abernathy became a pastor at the First Baptist Church in Montgomery. There, he met and married his wife, Juanita Odessa Jones, in 1952. When Martin Luther King, Jr., came to Montgomery as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, he and Abernathy formed close ties.

The Abernathy and King families found a vehicle for enacting their shared civil rights vision when a tailor’s assistant, Rosa Parks, was arrested for refusing to forfeit her bus seat to a white man on December 1, 1955. Appalled locals wanted to take a stand, and contacted Abernathy and King for guidance. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was born. A group dubbed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was formed to organize the boycott with the two pastors taking the helm. Abernathy was a key organizational figure throughout the 381-day boycott, at which point the U.S. Supreme Court ruled bus segregation unconstitutional. Abernathy and King both spent time in jail for their efforts, and Abernathy’s church was bombed the January after the boycott ended.

The Movement Gains Momentum

After the successful efforts of the MIA, Abernathy and King formed a second group with a broader agenda. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was created in 1957 and became a key organization in the struggle for civil rights. With King serving as president and Abernathy as the secretary and treasurer, the focus of the SCLC was to take more ambitious steps toward ending segregation in the south. King had moved to Georgia, and Abernathy joined him in 1961 to form a more cohesive push toward their goal, taking a position as pastor of the West Hunter Baptist Church of Atlanta at King’s urging. Abernathy and King staged major protests in Albany, Georgia, and Birmingham, Alabama, over the next two years, each time submitting to arrest and jail to prove their commitment to the cause. After Birmingham, protests erupted across the south, and over 100 southern cities initiated desegregation programs in parks, schools, restaurants, and transportation facilities.

The success of the Birmingham protests also energized the 1963 March on Washington where an estimated 250,000 people were rallied to support an end to segregation, discrimination, and poverty, and to encourage the passage of the Civil Rights Act that President John F. Kennedy had put before Congress. The demonstration was one of the largest in history, culminating with King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress; and that same year, Abernathy accompanied King to Oslo, Norway, for King’s Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.

On April 4, 1968, King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Abernathy, as King’s closest friend, was the first to reach him, and held him as King lay dying. Determined to continue the struggle, Abernathy succeeded King as president of the SCLC. He rallied protesters to Washington, DC, for the Poor People’s Campaign, an antipoverty effort he and King had initiated. Impoverished Blacks, Whites, and Native Americans expressed their plight to President Lyndon B. Johnson and the nation’s leaders at the capitol building. The campaign ended with arrests and Abernathy served yet another symbolic jail sentence. Later the same year, he spoke out for the Atlanta sanitation workers’ strike, and for the Charleston hospital workers’ strike. Abernathy continued to head the SCLC until 1977 when he returned to his first vocation as a clergyman and settled in Atlanta working as a minister full time. He remained committed to social change, however, and organized a new nonprofit enterprise called the Foundation for Economic Enterprises Development (FEED), which helped create jobs and train Blacks and other minorities for promising economic opportunities.

Abernathy received frequent recognition for his efforts and leadership, including honorary degrees from four universities. In 1989, he published his autobiography, And The Walls Came Tumbling Down. Abernathy died of a heart attack on April 30, 1990, at the age of 64, having played a crucial role in the seminal events of the struggle for civil rights.


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