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Abernathy, Ralph David 1926-1990

Ralph David Abernathy 1926-1990

Clergyman, civil rights leader

At a Glance

Formed a Bond With King

Helped Launch Historic Bus Boycott

Assumed Leadership of SCLC

Selected writings

Selected discography

Sources

The Reverend Ralph David Abernathy, closest friend and adviser of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., was also Kings hand-picked successor as president of the clergy-led Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Abernathy became president of the SCLC after Kings assassination in 1968 and continued the organizations nonviolent campaign for civil rights for blacks and other oppressed people in the United States. The alliance between Abernathy and King stretched back to the mid-1950s, when the two were Baptist ministers in Montgomery, Alabama, coordinating a boycott by local blacks to end segregation of the citys buses. The historic Montgomery Bus Boycott, which would come to mark the beginning of the modern-day Civil Rights Movement, thrust King into the national spotlight as the inspirational leader of a nonviolent struggle to desegregate the South, with Abernathy at his side as chief confidant and most trusted official.

To a lot of people, King and Abernathy seemed an odd pair, wrote Stephen B. Oates in Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Largely northern educated and a scion of Atlantas black middle class, King was learned, fastidious, and urbane. Abernathy, by contrast, came from a bucolic background and was so slow and earthy that some thought him crude. Both men, however, had mutual admiration for their accomplishments as ministers, and their styles complemented each other as leaders in the Civil Rights Movement. In a review of Abernathys 1989 autobiography, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, Henry Hampton, executive producer of the award-winning civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize, commented in the New York Times Book Review: Mr. Abernathy was known as the other-side of Martin King, and there is much evidence that King could not have succeeded without him. Mr. Abernathy was earthy and outgoing, connecting to the rural masses in a way that King, especially in the early years, could not. His ease with poor and working-class people, joined with Kings intellectual appeal to the middle class, made the pair a powerful magnet for a community that needed to overcome class differences.

Abernathy was born the tenth of twelve children on his familys farm in Linden, Alabama, in west-central rural ǀ Marengo County. Originally named David, he was nick-named

At a Glance

Born March 11, 1926, in Linden, AL; died of cardiac arrest, April 17, 1990, in Atlanta, GA; son of William L. (a farmer) and Louivery Valentine (Bell) Abernathy; married Juanita Odessa Jones, August 31, 1952; children: Juandalynn Ralpheda, Donzaleigh Avis, Ralph David III, Kwame Luthuli. Education: Alabama State College (now Alabama State University), B.S., 1950; Atlanta University, M.A. in sociology, 1951. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Baptist.

Ordained Baptist minister, 1948; radio disc jockey, Montgomery, AL, 1950; Alabama State College, Montgomery, dean of men, 1951 ; First Baptist Church, Montgomery, pastor, 1951-61; West Hunter Street Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA, pastor, beginning 1961 ; Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Atlanta, president, 1968-77, president emeritus, 1977. Founder, Montgomery Improvement Association, 1955; co-founder, SCLC, 1957; leader, Poor Peoples Campaign, Resurrection City, Washington, DC, 1968; organizer and chairman, Operation Breadbasket, Atlanta; founder, Foundation for Economic Enterprises Development (FEED). Advisory committee member of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE); participant in World Peace Council presidential committee meeting, Santiago, Chile, 1972. Military service: Served in U.S. Army, beginning in 1944.

Awards: Numerous honorary degrees, including LL.D.s from Allen University, 1960, Southampton College and Long Island University, both 1969, and Alabama State University, 1974, and D.D.s from Morehouse College, 1971, and Kalamazoo College, 1978; Peace Medal, German Democratic Republic (East Germany), 1971.

Member: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Atlanta Ministers Union, American Cancer Society, American Red Cross, Young Mens Christian Association (YMCA), Kappa Alpha Psi, Phi Delta Kappa.

Ralph by one of his sisters after a favorite teacher. Growing up, Abernathy was strongly influenced by both his Christian parents. His father, William, a hardworking farmer and church deacon, owned a 500-acre self-sufficient farm and was respected by both blacks and whites in the community. Deeply committed to education, Abernathys father served on the board of the local black high school, Linden Academy, and frequently made large financial donations to its operations. Abernathy aspired early on to become a preacher and his mother continually encouraged him in that ambition. As he noted in And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, The preacher, after all, was the finest and most important person around, someone who was accorded respect wherever he went. Abernathys father often impressed upon him that Preaching is not a vocation for a boy but for a man and David, if you ever see a good fight, get in itand win it.

After graduating from Linden Academy, Abernathy was drafted into the then-segregated U.S. Army, in which he served during the final months of World War II. He returned to Alabama after the war and enrolled in Montgomerys Alabama State College. A good student and natural leader, Abernathy was elected president of the student council and successfully led protests to obtain better cafeteria conditions and living quarters. Instead of drawing the wrath of school officials, however, Abernathy earned their respect and was later hired as the schools dean of men. Abernathy formally announced his calling as a Baptist minister in 1948; but he was also very interested in learning more about civil rights in his classes at Alabama State, a subject handled with much discretion by the faculty.

After graduation Abernathy worked during the summer of 1950 as a disc jockey at a white Montgomery radio station; he was the first black to do so. In the fall he enrolled at Atlanta University, where he received his masters degree in sociology. While in Atlanta, Abernathy had the opportunity to hear Martin Luther King, Jr., preach for the first time. The location was the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Kings father had been minister for many years. Abernathy introduced himself to the young King, with whom he was very impressed. Abernathy recounted in his autobiography: He was about my age, but already he had begun to build a reputation in a city the size of Atlanta. So I sat there burning with envy at his learning and confidence. Already he was a scholar; and while he didnt holler as loud as some of the more famous preachers I had heard, he could be loud enough when he wanted to. Even then I could tell he was a man with a special gift from God.

Formed a Bond With King

After obtaining his masters degree Abernathy returned to Alabama and worked part-time as minister for the Eastern Star Baptist Church in Demopolis, near his hometown of Linden. Abernathy was very popular with the congregation; under his stewardship Eastern Star became the most active church in Demopolis. About this time Abernathy also began substituting at one of Montgomerys leading black churches, First Baptist. When a permanent vacancy in the pulpit opened there, Abernathy, only 26 years old at the time, was named minister of the congregation. Three years later King accepted a call to another of Montgomerys leading black churches, Dexter Avenue Baptist, and he and Abernathy became close friends. The King and Abernathy families socialized together; the topic of conversation was frequently civil rights. Abernathy recalled in And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: As Martin expounded philosophy, I saw its practical applications on the local level. To use a military analogy, while he was talking about strategy (the broad, overall purpose of a campaign), I was thinking about tactics (how to achieve that strategy through specific actions).

In 1955 a black seamstress from Montgomery named Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her bus seat to a white passenger, for which she was arrested and later fined. City buses in Montgomery, as was the case throughout the South, were segregatedblack sections were in the back and reserved white seats were in the front. In between the two sections was an area in which blacks could sit, but they were required to move if there were white passengers without seats. Parks, tired after a long day at work, refused the order of the white bus driver to move from her seat, and was turned in to the local police and arrested. The incident, though not the first of its kind in Montgomery, stood out in that Parks was a quiet and well-respected woman of the community who had served as secretary of the local branch of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).

Helped Launch Historic Bus Boycott

A local group called the Womens Political Council suggested a boycott by blacks of the citys buses, while King and Abernathyboth still in their twentiesmoved to form what became known as the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). Through hurried meetings in their churches, Abernathy and King readily rallied the support of Montgomery blacks to boycott the segregated buses. The MIA, under Kings principles of a nonviolent campaign, worked feverishly to coordinate the boycott Announcements were made in black churches that blacks should stay off the buses. The citys black taxi companies were contacted to transport people; later a carpool was organized after the city ruled that the reduced fares charged by the taxi drivers were illegal. King, as the head of the MIA, and Abernathy, as program chief, became responsible for maintaining the momentum of the boycott within the scope of a nonviolent protest. Martins task was to teach them; mine was to move them to actor rather not to actin accordance with those principles, Abernathy noted. So at each meeting I would take the pulpit to whip them into a fervor, exhorting them to remain true to our cause.

Despite numerous threats and other intimidation, the boycott persisted for over a year until the federal courts in June of 1956 upheld an injunction against the bus companys segregation policies. Having successfully led the rally against segregation in Montgomery, King was eager to push for civil rights for blacks in all areas of life. In January of 1957 King and Abernathy met in Atlanta with other Southern clergymen to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization of churches and civic groups that would lead nonviolent desegregation protests across the South. King was elected president of the SCLC and Abernathy its secretary-treasurer. While at the Atlanta meeting, Abernathys home and First Baptist Church were bombed, in addition to other homes and churches in Montgomery. Abernathys family barely escaped injury; the minister hurriedly returned to Montgomery to tend to his family and oversee the rebuilding of his church.

Later in 1957 King and Abernathy met with then-Vice-President Richard M. Nixon to petition Nixon and President Dwight D. Eisenhower to speak in the South on the importance of governmental compliance with the Supreme Courts landmark Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education ruling, which had outlawed segregation in public schools. In 1960 King moved to Atlanta to devote his full time to SCLC activities; a year later, at Kings urging, Abernathy also moved and became pastor of the West Hunter Street Baptist Church. In the next few years King, Abernathy, and the SCLC led desegregation protest movements across the South, including marches, rallies, and sit-ins in cities like Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, Albany, Georgia, Greensboro, North Carolina, and St. Augustine, Florida. They were arrested numerous times; violence and threats against their lives became routine occurrences. In 1965 King named Abernathy vice-president at large of the SCLC, perhaps foreseeing the possibility that he might not be around forever to lead the organization.

Assumed Leadership of SCLC

In 1968 Kingwho was in Memphis, Tennessee, to support a strike by city sanitation workerswas assassinated by a sniper as he stood on the balcony of his motel room. Abernathy was at Kings side when he died. Later, SCLC board members unanimously named Abernathy leader of the organization. One of his first moves was to proceed with Kings proposed Poor Peoples Campaign march on Washington, D.C. In 1968 Abernathy led a demonstration on the nations capitol to protest for economic and civil rights for poor people and oversaw the construction of a shantytown called Resurrection City near the Lincoln Memorial. Resurrection City drew poor and homeless people from around the country. In May of 1968 Abernathy met with members of Congress to petition for help for the nations unemployed and poor. He was later arrested when the group refused to move from the site after its demonstration permits had expired.

As president of the SCLC Abernathy led several other desegregation protests in the South, including a major one in Charleston, South Carolina. He resigned from the SCLC in 1977 and made an unsuccessful bid for the Georgia fifth district U.S. Congressional seat vacated by prominent black statesman Andrew Young. Undaunted, Abernathy formed an organization called Foundation for Economic Enterprises Development (FEED)designed to help train blacks for better economic opportunitiesand carried on his ministerial duties at West Hunter Street Baptist. In his later years Abernathy lectured across the United States, but was hampered at times by health problems.

In 1989 Abernathys autobiography, And The Walls Came Tumbling Down, was criticized by some black leaders for the ministers inclusion of details regarding Kings well-known extramarital affairs. Hampton questioned Abernathys motives, suggesting jealousy and a smearing of the record. Does it really add to the record or does it simply provide fodder for blaring headlines? Hampton asked in his book review. Others rose to Abernathys defense, however, stating that he had included information about King that was common knowledge, and that a respectable autobiography should not censor facts, especially from Abernathy, who knew King best. Beyond this controversy And the Walls Came Tumbling Down is noteworthy, Hampton wrote, for being the story of a man at the core of a great social movement.Hampton praised Abernathys recounting of his own involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, noting that his storytelling is gripping, even moving.

Selected writings

And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: An Autobiography, Harper & Row, 1989.

The Natural History of a Social Movement: The Montgomery Improvement Association, from The Walking City: The Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955-1956, edited by David J. Garrow, Carlson, 1989.

Selected discography

Birmingham, Alabama, 1963: Mass Meeting, Folkway Records, 1980.

The Sit-in Story, Folkway Records, 1961.

Sources

Books

Abernathy, Ralph David, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: An Autobiography, Harper, 1989.

Branch, Taylor, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63, Touchstone, 1988.

Oates, Stephen B., Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr., New American Library, 1982.

Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement From the 1950s Through the 1980s, edited by Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer, with Sarah Flynn, Bantam, 1990.

The Walking City: The Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955-1956, edited by David J. Garrow, Carlson, 1989.

Periodicals

New York Post, April 13, 1968.

New York Times, March 24, 1990.

New YorkTimes Book Review, October 29, 1989; November 26, 1989.

Michael E. Mueller

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Ralph David Abernathy

Ralph David Abernathy

Civil rights leader Ralph David Abernathy (born 1926) was the best friend and trusted assistant of Martin Luther King, Jr., whom he succeeded as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a nonviolent civil rights organization.

Ralph David Abernathy, one of 12 children, was born in Marengo County, Alabama, about 90 miles outside of Montgomery. Originally named David, he was nicknamed Ralph by one of his sisters after a favorite teacher. His father William, the son of a slave, supported his family as a sharecropper until he saved enough money to buy 500 acres of his own, upon which he built a prosperous self-sufficient farm. He eventually emerged as one of the leading African Americans in the county, serving as a deacon in his church and on the board of the local African American high school and becoming the first African American there who voted and served on the grand jury. Ralph aspired early on to become a preacher and was encouraged by his mother to pursue that ambition. Although Abernathy's father died when he was 16 years old, the young man was able to obtain a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics from Alabama State University and a Master's degree in sociology from Atlanta University in 1951. During this time he worked as the first African American DJ at a white Montgomery radio station. While attending college he was elected president of the student council and led successful protests for better cafeteria conditions and living quarters. He earned the respect of both students and administrators, and he was later hired as the school's dean of men.

Montgomery Bus Boycott

Before obtaining his first degree, Abernathy was ordained as a Baptist minister and, after completing his education, served as minister at the Eastern star Baptist church in Demopolis, near his home town of Linden. When he was 26 he accepted a position as full time minister at the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Three years later, Martin Luther King accepted a call to another of Montgomery's leading African American churches, Dexter Avenue Baptist. During this time King and Abernathy became close friends.

In 1955 an African American seamstress from Montgomery named Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her bus seat to a white passenger and she was arrested and later fined. This began an important historic phase of the civil rights movement. Through hurried meetings in their churches ministers, along with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), began a boycott of the city busses until all African Americans were assured better treatment. The ministers formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA)—a name suggested by Abernathy—to coordinate the boycott and voted a young minister named Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. their president.

The MIA convinced African American taxi-cab drivers to take African American workers to their jobs for a ten cent fare. When the city government declared that practice illegal, those with cars formed carpools so that the boycotters wouldn't have to return to the busses. After 381 days, the boycott was over and the busses were completely desegregated, a decision enforced by a United States district court. During 1956 Abernathy and King had been in and out of jail and court, and toward the end of the boycott on January 10, 1957, Abernathy's home and church were bombed. By the time the boycott was over it had attracted national and international attention, and televised reports of the activities of the MIA encouraged African American protesters all over the South.

Nonviolent Civil Rights Movement

King and Abernathy's work together in the MIA commenced their career as partners in the civil rights struggle and sealed their close friendship, which lasted until King's assassination in 1968. Soon after the boycott they met with other African American clergymen in Atlanta to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and press for civil rights in all areas of life. King was elected president and Abernathy the secretary-treasurer. This group began to plan for a coordinated nonviolent civil rights movement throughout the South, the ultimate purpose of which would be to end segregation and to hasten the enactment of effective federal civil rights legislation. In the early 1960s when the civil rights movement began to intensify because of student lunch counter sit-ins, nonviolent demonstrations, and efforts to desegregate interstate busses and bus depots, Abernathy moved to Atlanta, Georgia, to become the pastor of West Hunter Baptist Church. In Atlanta he would be able to work more closely with the SCLC and King, who had returned to the city at an earlier date.

The SCLC attempted to coordinate a desegregation movement in Albany, Georgia, in December 1961, but were not as effective as they hoped to be with their work there. Abernathy was arrested along with King during the Albany demonstrations, but they were quickly released from jail because the city leaders did not want to attract national attention to conditions in the city. In the spring of 1963 the leaders of the SCLC began to coordinate their efforts to desegregate facilities in Birmingham, Alabama. Publicity about the rough treatment of African American demonstrators at the hand of Eugene "Bull" Conner, the city's director of public safety, directed the eyes of the world on that city's civil rights protest. Abernathy found himself in jail with King once again. More than 3,000 other African Americans in the city also endured periods of incarceration in order to dramatize their demands for equal rights. The Birmingham demonstrations were successful and the demands for desegregation of public facilities were agreed upon. In the wake of the demonstrations, desegregation programs commenced in over 250 southern cities. Thousands of schools, parks, pools, restaurants, and hotels were opened to all people regardless race.

March On Washington

The success of the Birmingham demonstration also encouraged President John F. Kennedy to send a civil rights bill to Congress. In order to emphasize the need for the bill, leaders of all the nation's major civil rights organizations, including the SCLC, agreed to participate in a massive demonstration in Washington, D.C. The "March on Washington" on August 28, 1963, attracted over 250,000 African American and white demonstrators from all over the United States. By the next summer the Civil Rights Act had been signed into law, and a year later, in 1965, the Voting Rights Act had passed.

On April 4, 1968, during a strike by city sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, King was assassinated, and Abernathy succeeded him as the leader of the SCLC. Abernathy's first project was the completion of King's plan to hold a Poor People's Campaign in Washington during which white, African American, and Native American poor people would present their problems to President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Congress. Poor people moved into Washington in mule trains and on foot and erected "Resurrection City." Abernathy once again found himself in jail, this time for unlawful assembly. After the Poor People's Campaign, Abernathy continued to lead the SCLC, but the organization did not regain the popularity it held under King's leadership.

Abernathy resigned from the SCLC in 1977 and made an unsuccessful bid for the Georgia fifth district U.S. Congressional seat vacated by prominent African American statesman Andrew Young. Later, he formed an organization called Foundation for Economic Enterprises Development (FEED), designed to help train African Americans for better economic opportunities. He continued to carry out his ministerial duties at the West Hunter Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, and lectured throughout the United States. In 1989 Abernathy published his autobiography, And The Walls Come Tumbling Down (Harper, 1989), which garnered criticism from other civil rights leaders for its revelations about the alleged extramarital affairs of Martin Luther King.

Further Reading

Ralph Abernathy's biography is And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: An Autobiography (1991). The first published biography of Abernathy is Catherine M. Reef, Ralph David Abernathy (People in Focus Book) (1995). There is a substantial amount of biographical material about him in Stephen Oates' biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., Let the Trumpet Sound (1982). Some information about Abernathy is also available in Flip Schulke, editor, Martin Luther King, Jr.; A Documentary … Montgomery to Memphis (1976) and in David J. Garrow, The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr. (1981). There is information about Abernathy in a publication by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference entitled The Poor People's Campaign, a Photographic Journal (1968). □

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Abernathy, Ralph

Ralph Abernathy

Born: March 11, 1926
Linden, Alabama
Died: April 30, 1990
Atlanta, Georgia

African American civil rights activist

Civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy was the best friend and close assistant of Martin Luther King Jr. (19291968). He followed King as the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The organization used nonviolent means to fight for civil rights for African Americans.

Family and youth

Ralph David Abernathy, one of twelve children, was born in Linden, Alabama, on March 11, 1926. His father, William, the son of a slave, first supported his family as a sharecropper (a farmer who pays some of his crops as rent to the land's owner). In time William Abernathy saved enough money to buy five hundred acres of his own and built a prosperous farm. William Abernathy eventually emerged as one of the leading African Americans in his county. William Abernathy became the county's first African American to vote and the first to serve on the grand jury (a jury that decides whether or not evidence supports a formal charge against a person for a crime). William Abernathy also served as a deacon (a nonclergy church member) in his church.

Ralph Abernathy went to Alabama State University and graduated with a degree in mathematics in 1950. He later earned a master's degree in sociology from Atlanta University in 1951. During this time he also worked as the first African American disc jockey at a white Montgomery, Alabama, radio station. While attending college he was elected president of the student council and led successful protests that called for better cafeteria conditions and better living quarters for students. This experience was the beginning of a career leading protests and working to improve the lives of others.

From an early age Ralph Abernathy wanted to become a preacher and was encouraged by his mother to pursue his ambition. As he later recalled, he had noticed that the preacher was always the person who was most admired in his community. Before finishing college Abernathy became a Baptist minister. After completing his education he served as minister at the Eastern Star Baptist church in Demopolis, Alabama, near his home town of Linden. At age twenty-six Abernathy became a full-time minister at the First Baptist Church in Montgomery. Martin Luther King Jr. began preaching at another of Montgomery's leading African American churches, Dexter Avenue Baptist, three years later. During this time King and Abernathy became close friends.

Montgomery bus boycott

In 1955 an African American woman from Montgomery named Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat so that a white passenger could sit down. She was arrested for this action and was later fined. This event began an important historic phase of the civil rights movement. Local ministers and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began a boycott of the city buses to end segregation. At the time, the buses in Montgomery were segregated (people were required by law to sit in separate sections based on their race). Parks had been sitting in one of the front seats, which was in the "white" section. African Americans were required by law to give up their seats to white riders if other seats were not available. The ministers formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) to coordinate the boycott and voted Martin Luther King Jr. its president.

The MIA convinced African American cab drivers to take African American workers to their jobs for a ten-cent fare. This made it more affordable for African Americans to avoid riding the buses. After the city government declared the ten-cent cab rides illegal, people with cars formed car pools so that the boycotters would not have to return to the buses. After 381 days the boycott ended with the buses completely desegregated. The boycotters' victory over bus segregation was enforced by a United States district court.

During 1956 Abernathy and King had been in and out of jail and court as a result of their efforts to end the practice of separating people based on their race on buses. Toward the end of the bus boycott on January 10, 1957, Abernathy's home and church were bombed. By the time the boycott was over, it had attracted national and international attention. Televised reports of the MIA's activities inspired African American civil rights protesters all over the South.

Nonviolent civil rights movement

King and Abernathy's work together in the MIA was the beginning of years of partnership and friendship between them. Their friendship, as well as their joint efforts in the civil rights struggle, lasted until King's assassination in 1968. Soon after the bus boycott, they met with other African American clergymen in Atlanta, Georgia, to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The goal of the SCLC was to press for civil rights in all areas of life. King was elected president and Abernathy was named secretary-treasurer. The group began to plan for an organized, nonviolent civil rights movement throughout the South. Their aim was to end segregation and to push for more effective federal civil rights laws.

In the early 1960s the civil rights movement began to intensify. Students staged "sit-ins" by sitting in the "whites only" sections of lunch counters. Other nonviolent demonstrations and efforts to desegregate interstate buses and bus depots also continued. During this time Abernathy moved to Atlanta to become the pastor of West Hunter Baptist Church. In Atlanta, he would be able to work more closely with the SCLC and King, who was living in the city.

In the spring of 1963 SCLC leaders began to plan their efforts to desegregate facilities in Birmingham, Alabama. Publicity (of events shown on television) about the rough treatment of African American demonstrators directed the eyes of the world to that city's civil rights protest. Abernathy and King went to prison, while more than three thousand other African Americans in the city also endured periods of time in jail while working for equal rights. The Birmingham demonstrations were successful, and the demands for desegregation of public facilities were agreed upon. After the Birmingham demonstrations, desegregation programs began in over 250 southern cities. Thousands of schools, parks, pools, restaurants, and hotels were opened to all people, regardless of their race.

March on Washington

The success of the Birmingham demonstration also encouraged President John F. Kennedy (19171963) to send a civil rights bill to Congress. In order to stress the need for this bill, the leaders of all of the nation's major civil rights organizations agreed to participate in a massive demonstration in Washington, D.C. On August 28, 1963, this "March on Washington" attracted over 250,000 African American and white demonstrators from all over the United States. By the next summer the Civil Rights Act, which banned discrimination (treating people unequally because of their differences) based on race, color, religion, or national origin, had been signed into law. In 1965 the Voting Rights Act, which banned discrimination in voting, was passed.

Leadership of the SCLC

On April 4, 1968, King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Abernathy was named the new leader of the SCLC. His first project was to complete King's plan to hold a Poor People's Campaign in Washington during which poor whites, African Americans, and Native Americans would present their problems to President Lyndon B. Johnson (19081973) and the Congress. As a result of these protests, Abernathy once again found himself in jail. This time he was charged with unlawful assembly (an unlawful gathering of people for an illegal purpose). After the Poor People's Campaign, Abernathy continued to lead the SCLC, but the organization did not regain the popularity it had held under King's leadership.

Abernathy resigned from the SCLC in 1977. Later, he formed an organization that was designed to help train African Americans for better economic opportunities. He continued to serve as a minister and as a lecturer throughout the United States. In 1989 Abernathy published his autobiography, called And the Walls Come Tumbling Down (Harper, 1989). Abernathy died of a heart attack on April 30, 1990, in Atlanta.

For More Information

Abernathy, Ralph. And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: An Autobiography. New York: Harper & Row, 1991.

Oates, Stephen. Let the Trumpet Sound. New York: Harper & Row, 1982.

Reef, Catherine M. Ralph David Abernathy (People in Focus Book). Parsippany, NJ: Dillon Press, 1995.

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Abernathy, Ralph David

ABERNATHY, RALPH DAVID

In the long battle for civil rights, few leaders have had as an important a role as Ralph David Abernathy. From the late 1950s until 1968, Abernathy was the right-hand man of martin luther king jr. Together in 1957 they founded the southern christian leadership conference (SCLC), the organization chiefly responsible for the nonviolent protest movement whose gains over the next decade included major legal and social reforms for black Americans. Abernathy often shared a place next to King in meetings, marches, and jail, yet despite his considerable contributions to the civil rights movement, he labored largely in King's shadow. Later becoming SCLC president, he watched the transformation of the movement as his influence weakened and his politics changed, until controversy ultimately divided him from its mainstream.

Born on March 11, 1926, in Marengo County, Alabama, Abernathy was the grandson of a slave. His family members were successful farmers, and his father's leadership in the county's black community inspired him. Upon graduating from Linden Academy, he served in the army in world war ii. He was ordained as a Baptist minister in 1948. He earned a B.A. in mathematics from Alabama State College in 1950, an M.A. in sociology from Atlanta University in 1951, and later a law degree from Allen University in 1960.

The defining moment in Abernathy's life was meeting King. As a student in Atlanta, he had heard King preach in church. From there, they began a friendship that would shape both men's futures. In 1955, while both were pastors in Montgomery, Alabama, they began the first of many local protest actions against racial discrimination. They organized a boycott of city

buses by black passengers that led to the successful desegregation of local bus lines one year later. To build on this triumph, the pastors called a meeting of black leaders from ten southern states in January 1957 at an Atlanta church. This meeting marked the founding of the SCLC, which was devoted to the goal of furthering civil rights throughout the south. King was appointed the group's president, Abernathy its secretary-treasurer. The civil rights movement had begun.

Although the SCLC had committed itself to nonviolent protest, the forces they opposed were far from gun-shy. Segregationists bombed Abernathy's home and church. As opposition from individuals as well as government and law enforcement mounted, Abernathy continued to stress nonviolence. He said, "violence is the weapon of the weak and nonviolence is the weapon of the strong. It's the job of the state troopers to use mace on us. It's our job to keep marching. It's their job to put us in jail. It's our job to be in jail."

"I don't know what the future may hold, but I know who holds the future."
—Ralph Abernathy

For nearly a decade, this philosophy was a clarion call answered by thousands. Through sit-down strikes, marches, arrests and jailings, and frequently at great personal danger, King and Abernathy led a mass of nonviolent protesters across the south, working together to devise strategy and put it into action. The enactment of federal civil rights legislation in 1964 marked a major success. But tragedy followed with King's assassination in May 1968, after which Abernathy replaced him as SCLC president. He now added a new aggressiveness to the group's goals, notably organizing a week-long occupation of Potomac Park in Washington, D.C., by five thousand impoverished tent-dwellers in what was called the Poor People's Campaign. This effort to dramatize poverty was quickly crushed by federal law enforcement.

By the end of the 1960s, Abernathy's influence was in decline. The civil rights movement had splintered as younger, more militant members gravitated toward groups such as the black panthers and the Committee on Racial Equality (CORE). In 1977, Abernathy was forced from leadership of the SCLC amid a feud with King's widow, Coretta Scott King, and made an unsuccessful bid for Congress. In 1980, he supported the presidential campaign of conservative Republican ronald reagan, which further divided him from former friends and associates. References to Martin Luther King Jr.'s marital infidelities in Abernathy's 1989 memoir And the Walls Came Tumbling Down provoked more criticism. Politically and personally isolated, Abernathy died one year later of a heart attack on April 17, 1990, at the age of 64. In death, however, the criticism faded and was replaced by praise for his contributions to civil rights.

cross-references

Civil Rights Movement; King, Martin Luther, Jr.; Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

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Abernathy, Ralph David

Ralph David Abernathy (ăb´ərnăth´ē), 1926–90, American civil-rights leader, b. Linden, Ala. A Baptist minister, he helped Martin Luther King, Jr., organize the Montgomery bus boycott (1955). He was treasurer, vice president, and, after King's assassination (1968), president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). An advocate of nonviolence as a means to social change, he led the Poor People's Campaign on Washington, D.C., after King's death. He resigned from the SCLC in 1977.

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