Ralph David Abernathy, Sr. (March 11, 1926 – April 17, 1990) was a leader of the American Civil Rights Movement, a minister, and a close associate of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Following King’s assassination, Dr. Abernathy took up the leadership of the SCLC Poor People’s Campaign and led the March on Washington, D.C. that had been planned for May 1968.
He was born March 11, 1926 to W. L. Abernathy on the family 500-acre (200 ha) farm in Linden, Alabama. Technically he was born in Linden, Alabama. After serving in the United States Army during World War II, he enrolled at Alabama State University. In 1951 he earned a Masters of Science degree in sociology from Atlanta University. As an officer of the Montgomery, Alabama NAACP, he organized the first mass meeting of the Montgomery Bus Boycott to protest Rosa Parks‘ arrest on December 1.
In the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Abernathy was the young pastor of the largest black church First Baptist Church and a college professor, who, along with fellow English professor JoAnne Robinson, called for and distributed flyers asking the Negro citizens of Montgomery to stay off of the buses for what would become the Montgomery Bus Boycott. At the end of the boycott, on January 10, 1957, Dr. Abernathy’s church and his home (1327 South Hall Street) were bombed; his wife, Juanita, and infant daughter, Juandalynn, were unharmed.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said at the beginning of his last speech, “I’ve been to the mountain top,” that “Ralph David Abernathy is the best friend that I have in the world.” They first met in Atlanta, while still in school, and formed a lifelong friendship and partnership that only ended with King’s death on April 4, 1968.
Civil rights work
He attended Linden Academy, a Baptist school founded by the First Mt. Pleasant District Association; he was financially supported by his father, who always said, “the bottom rail will come to the top, one day and justice will not always be denied to the colored man.” His gentle father taught him, “If you see a good fight, get in it and fight to win it!” At Linden Academy, David led his first demonstration to protest the inferior Science Lab. The school improved the science lab as a result of his persistent actions.
During World War II, David enlisted in the military as Ralph David, and rose to the rank of Platoon Sergeant before earning an honorable discharge as a result of his bout of rheumatic fever in Europe.
In 1945, he enrolled in Alabama State Teacher College, now called Alabama State University in Montgomery, Alabama, where he became student body President and Class President. He graduated with High Honors and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Mathematics.
While still a college student, he announced his call to the ministry, which he had envisioned since he was a small boy growing up in a devout Baptist family. He preached his first sermon on Mother’s Day, 1948, in honor of his recently deceased mother.
Abernathy began his professional career in 1950, when he was appointed Personnel Director at Alabama State University; he later assumed the position of Dean of Men and Professor of Social Studies and Mathematics. During this period, he hosted a radio show and became the first black man on radio in Montgomery. In February 1952, he was called as the Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church, the largest black church in Montgomery, Alabama, where he served for ten years.
He married Juanita Odessa Jones of Uniontown, Alabama on August 31, 1952 and their union produced five children, Ralph David Abernathy Jr., (August 16, 1953 – August 18, 1953), Juandalynn Ralpheda, Donzaleigh Avis, Ralph David III and Kwame Luthuli Abernathy.
On December 2, 1955, in response to the arrest of his NAACP co-worker, Rosa Parks, Abernathy and his dearest friend, Dr. Martin Luther King, organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott and co-founded the American Civil Rights Movement. The Montgomery Improvement Association led the successful 381 days transit boycott challenging “Jim Crow” Segregation laws, and ended Alabama’s bus segregation.
While actively involved in the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, he completed his Master’s Degree in Sociology at Atlanta University. His master’s thesis, “The Natural History of A Social Movement: The Montgomery Improvement Association,” was published by Carlson Publishing in David Garrow’s book entitled, “The Walking City – The Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955-1956.”
The Abernathy home and church were bombed in January 1957, along with Mt. Olive Church, Bell Street Church and the home of Reverend Robert Graetz, on the evening that Dr. King, Dr. Abernathy and other Ministers were planning to convene to create the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Atlanta. Dr. King and Dr. Abernathy immediately returned to Montgomery, leaving Mrs. Coretta Scott King to conduct the first meeting of SCLC. Dr. Abernathy served as SCLC’s first Financial Secretary/Treasurer and Vice President At-Large during the years that Dr. King was its president, and assumed the presidency at Dr. King’s request upon Dr. King’s death.
After the success of the Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Birmingham and Huntsville in 1961, Dr. King insisted Rev. Abernathy assume the Pastorate of the West Hunter Street Baptist Church in Atlanta, moving his family from Montgomery, Alabama in 1962. He served as the Senior Pastor at that church until the time of his death.
The King/Abernathy partnership spearheaded successful nonviolent movements in Montgomery, Albany, Birmingham, Mississippi, Washington, Selma, St. Augustine, Chicago and Memphis. Their work helped to secure the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Bill of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the abolition of Jim Crow Segregation Laws in the southern United States.
For 13 turbulent years, from 1955 until Dr. King’s death on April 4, 1968, Dr. King and Dr. Abernathy journeyed together, every step of the way and were inseparable as best friends, sharing the same hotel rooms, jail cells and leisure times with their wives, children, family and friends, all the way to the end. By tearing down the walls of segregation, discrimination and helping to establish new legislation, Dr. King and Dr. Abernathy were able to instill a new sense of pride, dignity and self-worth in millions of African Americans and people of all colors, all over the world. Their Civil and Human Rights Movement serves as an inspiration and model of America’s principled non violent struggle for freedom, justice and equality.
Abernathy endured with equanimity devastating bombings, violent and brutal beatings by southern policemen and State Troopers, 44 arrests, daily death threats against his life and those of his wife and children. He endured the confiscation of his inheritance of family land and his automobile, which his family had to re-purchase at public auction. He endured the continual terrorizing of Dr. King, threats against and the bombing of the King home, the murders of colleagues, their civil rights workers, volunteering college students in the struggle, visiting ministers, a young white housewife who went to Selma and five innocent children in Birmingham. Dr. King and Dr. Abernathy, undaunted, unrelentingly marched the streets of the South proclaiming, “Let my people go.”
On April 4, 1968, Abernathy was with Martin Luther King in Memphis, Tennessee when King was assassinated. They shared Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel. The night before at the Mason Temple, Abernathy introduced Dr. King before he made his last public address; King said at the beginning of his speech that “Ralph Abernathy is the best friend I have in the world.” Dr. Abernathy cradled Martin Luther King, Jr., his dearest friend, in his arms, as King took his last breaths and died.
Assuming the mantle of the Civil Rights Movement and the Presidency of the SCLC, a griefstricken Abernathy led a march to support striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. In May 1968, Abernathy led the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, DC. The nation’s poor Blacks, Latinos, Whites and Native Americans came together from the Mississippi Delta, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Indian Reservations of the Northwest, the farmlands of the Southwest, and the inner cities of the North under the leadership of Dr. Abernathy to reside on the Mall of the Washington Memorial in Resurrection City. Hoping to bring attention to the plight of the nation’s impoverished, they constructed huts in the nation’s capital, precipitating a showdown with the police. On June 19, Ralph spoke at the Lincoln Memorial in front of tens of thousands of black and white citizens.
The Poor People’s Campaign reflected Abernathy’s deep conviction that “the key to the salvation and redemption of this nation lay in its moral and humane response to the needs of its most oppressed and poverty-stricken citizens.” His aim in the spring of 1968 was to raise the nation’s consciousness on hunger and poverty, which he achieved. The Poor People’s Campaign led to systematic changes in US Federal Policies and Legislation creating a national Food Stamp Program, a free meal program for low income children, assistance programs for the elderly, CEDAR and other work programs, day care and health care programs for low income people across America. June 24, 1968, the Washington, DC Police forced the poor to disband and demolished Resurrection City. Dr. Abernathy was jailed for nearly three weeks for refusing to comply with orders to evacuate.
On the eve of the Apollo 11 launch, July 15, 1969, Abernathy arrived at Cape Canaveral with several hundred members of the poor people to protest spending of government space exploration, while many Americans remained poor. He was met by Thomas O. Paine, the Administrator of NASA, whom he told that in the face of such suffering, space flight represented an inhuman priority and funds should be spent instead to “feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend the sick, and house the homeless.” Mr. Paine told Abernathy that the advances in space exploration were child’s play compared to the tremendously difficult human problems of society, and told him that “if we could solve the problems of poverty by not pushing the button to launch men to the moon tomorrow, then we would not push that button.” On the day of the launch, Dr. Abernathy led a small group of protesters to the restricted guest viewing area of the space center and chanted, “We are not astronauts, but we are people.”
Abernathy took part in a labor struggle in Charleston, South Carolina on behalf of the hospital workers of 1199B, which led to a living wage increase and improved working conditions for thousands of hospital workers.
Abernathy successfully negotiated a peace settlement at the Wounded Knee uprising between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Leaders of the American Indian Movement, Russell Means and Dennis Banks.
Abernathy addressed the United Nations in 1971 on World Peace and served as the leader of many peace missions as the President of the World Peace Council headquartered in Helsinki, Finland. He was a member of the Board of Directors of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. As President and Chairman of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Foundation, he remained president for nine years following Dr. King’s death in 1968 until his resignation in 1977, when he became President Emeritus until his death in 1990.
In 1977, he ran unsuccessfully for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District seat, losing to Congressman John Lewis. He founded the nonprofit organization Foundation for Economic Enterprises Development (FEED), which offered managerial and technical training, creating jobs, income, business and trade opportunities for underemployed and unemployed workers of all races and ethnicities. Through a grant from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, he built the Ralph David Abernathy Towers, a high rise Senior Citizens and Handicapped housing complex.
In 1979, Abernathy traveled around the country supporting Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s candidacy for the Presidency of the United States. However, he shocked critics a few weeks before the 1980 November election, when he endorsed the front runner, Ronald Reagan over the fledgling presidential campaign of Jimmy Carter. With an inevitable Republican victory, Dr. Abernathy said that he felt that he had to endorse Reagan, so that African Americans might gain some respect in that political party. After the disappointing performance of the Reagan Administration on Civil Rights and other areas, Dr. Abernathy withdrew his endorsement of Reagan in 1984, remaining a Democrat until his death.
During his lifetime, Dr. Abernathy was honored with more than 300 awards and citations, including five Honorary Doctorate Degrees. He served as a representative on the National Council for the Aged, the World Commission on Hunger, the National NAACP, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, the American Sociological Society, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, the Atlanta Baptist Ministers Union and on more than forty other organizations. An advocate of the Constitution’s First Amendment for Religious Freedom, Dr. Abernathy served as Vice President along with Dr. Robert Grant and co-founded the American Freedom Coalition in 1980.
Abernathy testified, along with his executive associate, James Peterson of Berkeley,California, before the Congressional Hearings calling for the Extension of the Voting Rights Act, which has and continues to serve as the only legal method to ensure equal and fair voting practices in the Southern States, guaranteeing that everyone born in the United States of America, regardless of race, is entitled to full citizenship and the right to vote.
In the 1980s, the Unification Church hired Dr. Abernathy as a spokesperson to protest the news media’s use of the term “Moonies“, which they compared with the word “Nigger“. Abernathy also served as vice president of the Unification Church-affiliated group American Freedom Coalition, and served on two Unification Church boards of directors.
In 1989, Harper Collins published Abernathy’s autobiography, “And The Walls Came Tumbling Down.” It was his final accounting of his close friendship—indeed, partnership—with Martin Luther King, Jr. and their work in the Civil Rights Movement.