Abernathy, Ralph David 1926-1990
Ralph David Abernathy 1926-1990
Clergyman, civil rights leader
The Reverend Ralph David Abernathy, closest friend and adviser of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., was also King’s hand-picked successor as president of the clergy-led Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Abernathy became president of the SCLC after King’s assassination in 1968 and continued the organization’s 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 city’s 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 Atlanta’s 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 Abernathy’s 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 King’s 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 family’s farm in Linden, Alabama, in west-central rural ǀ Marengo County. Originally named David, he was nick-named
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 People’s 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 Men’s 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, Abernathy’s 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.” Abernathy’s 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 it—and 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 Montgomery’s 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 school’s 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 King’s 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 didn’t 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.”
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 Montgomery’s 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 Montgomery’s 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 segregated—black 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).
A local group called the Women’s Political Council suggested a boycott by blacks of the city’s buses, while King and Abernathy—both still in their twenties—moved 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 King’s 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 city’s 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. “Martin’s task was to teach them; mine was to move them to act—or rather not to act—in 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 company’s 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, Abernathy’s home and First Baptist Church were bombed, in addition to other homes and churches in Montgomery. Abernathy’s 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 Court’s 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 King’s 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.
In 1968 King—who was in Memphis, Tennessee, to support a strike by city sanitation workers—was assassinated by a sniper as he stood on the balcony of his motel room. Abernathy was at King’s side when he died. Later, SCLC board members unanimously named Abernathy leader of the organization. One of his first moves was to proceed with King’s proposed Poor People’s Campaign march on Washington, D.C. In 1968 Abernathy led a demonstration on the nation’s 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 nation’s 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 opportunities—and 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 Abernathy’s autobiography, And The Walls Came Tumbling Down, was criticized by some black leaders for the minister’s inclusion of details regarding King’s well-known extramarital affairs. Hampton questioned Abernathy’s 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 Abernathy’s 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 Abernathy’s recounting of his own involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, noting that “his storytelling is gripping, even moving.”
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.
Birmingham, Alabama, 1963: Mass Meeting, Folkway Records, 1980.
The Sit-in Story, Folkway Records, 1961.
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.
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
Abernathy, Ralph David
Ralph David Abernathy
Minister, civil rights activist
Ralph David Abernathy was born on March 11, 1926, the tenth child of twelve children born to William L. Abernathy and Louivery Valentine Bell in Linden, Alabama. Shortly after his grandmother delivered him she told her daughter that he was a strange child and predicted that he would be known throughout the world. From the age of twelve he was called David, and indeed it is the name on his birth certificate, which has never been officially changed. His sister Manerva, however, was very impressed by one of her college professors whose name was Ralph David, and started calling her little brother by that name.
David Abernathy grew up on his father's five-hundred-acre Linden farm. His father had married well; he was given a milk cow and a calf as a wedding gift. He immediately started buying land, a few acres at a time, until he acquired the whole five hundred acres. The Abernathys lived in the large, long bungalow with six rooms that the father William built. Prosperous yet frugal, the family set aside money for church and education. In fact, David remembered his father donating up to $1,000 toward education during a Sunday morning plea from the Linden Academy principal.
Abernathy's high school was interrupted by military service: when he turned eighteen he was immediately drafted. After serving in the segregated U.S. Army, during which time his father died, Abernathy returned home and earned a GED certificate. In 1945, using his GI benefits, he enrolled at Alabama State College in Montgomery, a school committed to higher education for blacks.
In his sophomore year, as student council president, Abernathy directly faced his first case of injustice. A campus controversy arose over two separate menus being prepared for faculty and students. The problem gave Abernathy his first opportunity to lead a demonstration in protest against discriminatory practices. After several conversations with the dining hall supervisor, Abernathy encouraged a strike of the entire student body, boycotting the dining hall and refusing to eat anything until the food they were served improved. All students enthusiastically supported the idea and agreed to begin in two days. Two mornings later the faculty marched in to eat their usual meal of eggs, bacon, and cereal; the supervisor fixed hundreds of pieces of toast for the students but no one showed up to eat them. The boycott was effective in bringing about an improvement in student meals.
Alabama State College may have seemed sleepy and docile to outsiders, but black professors such as J. E. Pierce, who taught political science, made students understand how important the ballot was to their future and how courageous they would have to be to ensure black suffrage. Emma Payne Howard, director of extracurricular activities, stressed the need for racial progress and made students understand that a religious vocation can be compatible with a social conscience. In 1950 Abernathy graduated with honors from Alabama State College with an undergraduate degree in mathematics, and he was accepted at Atlanta University to work on a master's degree in sociology.
Call to the Ministry
During his college days Abernathy was devoutly religious. In fact, he was superintendent of the student Sunday school, and people anticipated he would enter the ministry. In April 1948, at age twenty-two, Abernathy announced his call to preach. Immediately churches filled to capacity with students from school and family members all eager to hear him. During this time he led a protest regarding the need for improved living conditions in the dormitories.
In the fall of 1950 when Abernathy enrolled in Atlanta University, he visited Ebenezer Baptist Church and heard Martin Luther King Jr. give a sermon. After the service he went over to shake King's hand and in that moment both men recognized a kindred spirit in the other. Also while at Alabama State College, Abernathy met Juanita Odessa Jones, the woman who became his wife.
At age twenty-six, Abernathy became the seventh pastor of the historic First Baptist Church of Montgomery, Alabama. He was married in this church and while serving at this church the couple's first child was born and died.
Abernathy became pastor at First Baptist during a propitious time. A new generation of black men and women were coming along, people who were less patient and less afraid of making trouble. Born and reared in an environment where a black man was not free to use public facilities, drink from water fountains, or sit anywhere he wanted to on a bus, Abernathy knew this younger generation had not lived with racial discrimination quite as long and many had traveled beyond its limitations. These young people knew life could be different and were half-inclined to believe that the promised changes were really going to come soon. Instead of preaching about submission and the virtues of patient suffering, Abernathy preached about courage and justice and the necessity of gaining equality. He warned people of struggles to come and explained to them that they would be fighting for their own dignity as creatures of God and for the dignity for their children and grandchildren.
Joins the Civil Rights Movement
In 1955 Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, moved to Montgomery where King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Abernathy and King began working together. Though they both had heavy pastoral responsibilities, they tried to meet for dinner every day to talk and make plans. During these conversations the civil rights movement took shape. In December of the same year they suddenly found themselves at the center of the Rosa Parks controversy. The men formulated plans to turn Montgomery into a model of social justice and racial harmony. Using the principles of passive resistance promoted by Mahatma Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau, Abernathy and King decided that the implementation would be completely nonviolent.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery city bus and thus set events in motion that led to the Montgomery bus boycott. Hers was not the first refusal to obey a bus driver's orders, for two black women had already been arrested earlier in the year for doing so. One of them, a fifteen-year-old student, had been dragged from the bus and charged with assault and battery as well as failure to comply with laws governing public transportation. What made the arrest and media coverage of Rosa Parks so significant was Parks' own appearance and demeanor. She was soft-spoken and courteous, a slight woman who worked as a seamstress at a large department store. She had an air of gentility about her that usually evoked respect from whites and blacks alike. No one imagined that she could end up in jail, but that is precisely what happened. Word quickly spread of Parks' arrest. Jo Ann Robinson, who had been instrumental in assisting the other two women who were arrested, was already preparing to hand out leaflets for the boycott. Abernathy joined in handing out leaflets to the black community.
- Born in Linden, Alabama on March 11
- Drafted into the U.S. Army in an all-black unit
- Discharged from the Army; enrolls at Alabama State College in Montgomery
- Announces decision to enter the ministry
- Becomes pastor of Montgomery's black First Baptist Church
- Earns B.A. from Alabama State University
- Marries Juanita Odessa Jones
- Begins work with Martin Luther King Jr.
- Joins in 381-day bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama
- Participates in march on Washington, D. C. on August 28
- Witnesses assassination of King in Memphis, Tennessee
- Mounts campaign for the hospital employees in Charleston, South Carolina
- Travels to Europe and South America promoting peace and human rights
- Lobbies Congress for the extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1965
- Dies of heart failure in Atlanta, Georgia on April 17
On Friday evening at a quickly planned citywide meeting the black community agreed to support a boycott. On the following Monday morning empty buses drove their routes. The boycott was working. On Monday evening Abernathy and King were further surprised to find that their planned meeting had attracted thousands, all cheering to the strength and power of their unity. The boycott's success made them realize they needed to organize to be more effective and to include supportive non-blacks as well. That evening the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was formed.
In January 1956 King's home was bombed and in December of that year Abernathy's home was bombed. On that same night in December someone also bombed his church. In the midst of this agitation, Abernathy and King and their wives had been working to form a region-wide organization that would extend the influence of the Montgomery Improvement Association. After these bombings King went to New Orleans in order to form a new group, which was called the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Through their leadership in this organization, Abernathy and King became known as the "civil rights twins." Abernathy was respected and honored as one of the two vanguards of the civil rights era.
As a black Baptist preacher, Abernathy believed in a new social gospel that many thought was both radical and worldly. He had visions in which black Americans would win their freedom and exercise all the rights and privileges of that freedom. As a leader, he was willing to take life-threatening risks to achieve unimagined victories for black Americans. His sermons were not scholarly discourses written in lofty language. Rather, they were delivered in simple language full of folk sayings and anecdotes reminiscent of his rural upbringings.
After King's assassination in 1968, Abernathy assumed the leadership position of the organization they had both formed together, SCLC. He was elected president without reservation. In the spring of 1968 he led the Poor People's Campaign which brought thousands of poor people to Washington, D.C., and focused the nation's attention on the ugly reality of hunger and poverty. He worked to improve the living wage and working conditions to thousands of hospital workers in the nation. In 1977 he resigned his position as president of SCLC due to lack of financial stability of the organization.
Abernathy received more than three hundred honors, including the Man of the Year Award from the Atlanta Urban League, the Unheralded Hero of Human Rights from the YMCA, the Peace Medallion of the German Democratic Baptist Churches, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Award from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was also the recipient of twenty-seven honorary doctorate degrees.
In January 1970 he traveled to Europe and South America. In Scandinavia he talked of his own vision of eventual oneness of all poor and dark-skinned people of the world. One month after returning from Europe he flew to Panama and Brazil. In Brazil he called for an international movement to eradicate racism, poverty, and war. In 1971 he traveled to Moscow State University in the Soviet Union to promote, world peace and understanding and to promote nonviolence.
In 1989, after more than thirty years in the struggle in the civil rights movement, Abernathy wrote his autobiography, And The Walls Came Tumbling Down. He had two reasons for writing this book: to describe life under the Jim Crow laws and to describe the civil rights movement.
Abernathy's leadership in the movement, along with that of Martin Luther King Jr., ranks him at the top of a list of those who led boycotts and marches through many hostile segregated U.S. cities, Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham, Alabama; Albany, Georgia, and Chicago, to gain equal justice for African Americans during and following the civil rights era. On April 17, 1990, Ralph David Abernathy died while being treated for a heart attack. He and his wife had four children: Juandalyn Ralpheda, Donzaleigh Avis, Ralph David III, and Kwame Luthuli.
Bennett, Tom. "Ralph David Abernathy 1926–1990" Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 18 April 1990.
Waite, Lori. "Ralph Abernathy Continues the Struggle for King's Dream." Atlanta Tribune (February 1989).
Civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy was the best friend and close assistant of Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968). 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 (1917–1963) 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 (1908–1973) 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.
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.
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). □
Abernathy, Ralph David
Abernathy, Ralph David
March 11, 1926
April 17, 1990
Born in Linden, Alabama, clergyman and civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy was initially called only "David" among family members; later, through the inspiration a teacher gave one of his sisters, the appellation "Ralph" was added. In his formative years, Abernathy was deeply influenced by his hardworking father, William L. Abernathy, who was a Baptist deacon and a farmer who owned five hundred acres of choice real estate. The son's admiration for his father was a major factor in his work in public life. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Abernathy seized the opportunity offered by the GI Bill and earned a B.S. degree in 1950 from Alabama State College (now Alabama State University). In 1951 he earned an M.A. in sociology from Atlanta University.
In 1948 Abernathy was ordained a Baptist minister and went on to serve as pastor of the congregations at the Eastern Star Baptist Church in Demopolis, Alabama, in 1950 to 1951, then at the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, from 1951 to 1961 and the West Hunter Street Baptist Church in Atlanta from 1961 to 1990.
While a student at Alabama State, Abernathy had two experiences that would prepare him for his later role as a civil rights leader: He was urged to contribute to the freedom struggle of African Americans by such professors as J. E. Pierce and Emma Payne Howard; and, as president of the student council, he led two campus protests for improved cafeteria services and dormitory conditions. Because of his dignified protests, Abernathy won the respect of the institution's administration. As a result, in 1951 he returned to his alma mater to become dean of men.
While pastor of First Baptist, Abernathy became a close friend of the courageous pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Vernon Johns. Johns, as an older, seasoned pulpiteer, displayed extraordinary boldness in his personal defiance of Montgomery's oppressive Jim Crow climate. When Johns's ties with Dexter were severed, Abernathy developed an even closer friendship with his successor, Martin Luther King Jr. The two young pastors' families became intertwined in a fast friendship that prompted alternating dinners between the two households. At these social meetings numerous conversations were held that frequently centered around civil rights.
In 1955 the two friends' ideas were propelled into action by the arrest of Rosa Parks, a black seamstress. After a long day of toil, Parks refused to yield her seat on a public bus for a white passenger who boarded after her. This refusal by Parks was in violation of the city's segregationist laws. Her action was not the first of its kind by African Americans in Montgomery. However, when Parks was arrested, her quiet, admirable demeanor coupled with her service as secretary of the local NAACP branch helped to stir the black community to protest.
King and Abernathy became leaders of what came to be known as the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). Through meetings in churches, the two men spearheaded a mass boycott of Montgomery's buses. While King served as head of the MIA, Abernathy functioned as program chief. Nonviolence was the method with which the protest was implemented. Despite having been a soldier, Abernathy, like King, was convinced that nonviolence was the only acceptable means of dissent. Both had read and accepted the philosophies of Henry David Thoreau and Mahatma Gandhi. The boycott persisted for more than a year. Despite the inordinate length of the struggle, the black community was consolidated in its refusal to ride segregated buses. Finally, in June 1956 a federal court upheld an injunction against the bus company's Jim Crow policy.
This successful boycott inspired the two young clergymen to expand their efforts to win civil rights for American's black citizens. As a result, in January 1957 the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was born in Atlanta. King was elected president of the new organization, and Abernathy became its secretary-treasurer. While he attended this meeting, Abernathy's home and church were bombed in Montgomery. Although it was a close call, Abernathy's family was spared any physical harm.
King moved to Atlanta in 1960 and a year later persuaded Abernathy to follow him and take on the pastorate of West Hunter Street Baptist Church. In the years that followed, the two men, under the auspices of SCLC, led nonviolent protests in cities such as Birmingham and Selma, Alabama; Albany, Georgia; Greensboro, North Carolina; and St. Augustine, Florida. As a consequence, both were arrested many times and experienced violence and threats of violence. In 1965 Abernathy became vice president at large of SCLC. When King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968, Abernathy was unanimously elected his successor. Soon after, Abernathy launched King's planned Poor People's Campaign. He led other protests until he resigned as head of SCLC in 1977.
After Abernathy assumed the leadership of SCLC, many compared him to King. Unfortunately, he was often perceived as lacking the charisma and poise of his friend. Some even accused Abernathy of being cross or crude in his leadership style. Perhaps the best historical defense of Abernathy's reputation came from himself in the publishing of his autobiography, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down (1989). However, its content and literary style were unappreciated by many because of the book's revelations about King's extramarital affairs. Critics accused Abernathy of betraying his long-deceased friend.
Abernathy died in 1990.
See also Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Jim Crow; King, Martin Luther, Jr.; Montgomery Improvement Association; Montgomery, Ala., Bus Boycott; Parks, Rosa; Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)
Abernathy, Ralph David. And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: An Autobiography. New York: Harper, 1989.
Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–1963. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.
randolph meade walker (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005
Ralph David Abernathy and Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957 to promote civil rights for black Americans. Abernathy has sometimes been called the “other side” of King, his longtime friend and associate. Abernathy found it easy to relate to the poor while King, at least in the early years, appealed more to the middle class. Together, the two men were a powerful team, attracting thousands of followers to the struggle for civil rights.
Ralph Abernathy was born on March 11, 1926. His father, William Abernathy, was a Baptist deacon and farmer. Abernathy aspired to be a preacher, but when he graduated from high school he was drafted into the U.S. Army to serve during the last months of World War II (1939–45). After the war, Abernathy enrolled at Alabama State College in Montgomery, Alabama . He was ordained a Baptist minister in 1948 and graduated with a bachelor's degree in mathematics in 1950. He earned a master's degree in sociology from Atlanta University the following year.
With King in Montgomery
In 1951, Abernathy became pastor of First Baptist Church in Montgomery. Three years later, King became pastor of another black church in Montgomery, Dexter Avenue Baptist. The two men became fast friends. Sharing a mutual interest in the struggle for civil rights,
Abernathy and King discussed how to go about bringing an end to segregation (the separation of blacks and whites in public places) in an orderly, nonviolent manner. Despite having been a soldier, Abernathy, like King, was convinced that nonviolence was the only acceptable means of protest.
In 1955, Montgomery became the site of a huge civil rights event when a well-respected African American woman, Rosa Parks (1913–2005), refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a city bus. She was arrested and fined. Parks's arrest touched a nerve in the community. The local Women's Political Council called for all black people of Montgomery to protest by refusing to ride the buses.
King and Abernathy quickly formed the Montgomery Improvement Association and held meetings to spread the word about the Montgomery bus boycott . They instructed local ministers to explain from their pulpits how the boycott was to be conducted and arranged for taxis and carpools to take people to work. The boycott began on December 5, 1955. Despite threats and intimidation, it lasted for more than one year, but it was successful. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation on Montgomery buses was illegal.
In 1957, King and Abernathy arranged a meeting in Atlanta, Georgia , with other Southern ministers. They formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization of churches and civic groups that would lead nonviolent protests across the South in pursuit of desegregation (ending the separation of blacks and whites in public places). King was elected president of the SCLC; Abernathy was its secretary-treasurer. While Abernathy was at the SCLC meeting, his home and the First Baptist Church were bombed, as were other homes and churches in Montgomery. Although his wife and children escaped unharmed, the warning was clear.
In 1960, King moved to Atlanta to devote more time to the SCLC, and the following year Abernathy joined him there, becoming pastor of West Hunter Street Baptist Church. During the next few years, the two ministers led nonviolent marches, sit-ins, and rallies in the major cities of the South. (See Sit-in Movement .) They were arrested a number of times and threatened often, but they attracted support across the nation. Little by little, they made progress against the segregation and discrimination faced by African Americans in the South. In 1965, Abernathy became the vice president of the SCLC.
Poor People's Campaign
By the mid-1960s, the civil rights movement had changed many laws and policies, but many African Americans were still disadvantaged and poor. To draw attention to poverty, King organized a Poor People's Campaign in 1968. He intended to march on Washington, D.C. , but he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, before he could carry out his plan. It was left to Abernathy to complete the task.
Soon after King's death, Abernathy, the new president of the SCLC, led a march to Washington to demonstrate for economic and civil rights. He and his followers set up a campsite called Resurrection City near the Lincoln Memorial , to which poor and homeless people came from across the country. The results of their efforts were disappointing, largely because Congress was preoccupied with the problems of the Vietnam War (1954–75).
As president of the SCLC, Abernathy led several protests against segregation in the South. He was often compared to King and was generally perceived as lacking the charisma and poise of his friend. He resigned from the SCLC in 1977 to run for Congress, but he failed to gain the seat. Undaunted, he formed an organization called the Foundation for Economic Enterprises Development (FEED) to teach job skills to African Americans.
Abernathy published his autobiography, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, in 1989. Because the book revealed that King had been carrying on extramarital affairs, critics accused Abernathy of betraying his long-deceased friend. He died the following year.
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."
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.