Ralph David Abernathy, born on this day, March 11, 1926, was an American civil rights activist and leader, and a close friend of Martin Luther King, Jr.
He was born in Linden, Alabama, the tenth of twelve children. His father had a five-hundred-acre farm and was also a deacon at Hopewell Baptist Church, influencing the young Abernathy’s choice of a religious vocation.
Abernathy served in the army during World War II. He earned a B.S. in mathematics from Alabama State University in Montgomery, and an M.A. in sociology from from Atlanta University. His involvement in political activism began as an undergraduate, when he led demonstrations protesting poor living conditions for students.
In 1952, Abernathy became pastor of the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. It was while living in Montgomery that Abernathy formed a close and enduring partnership with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1954 King moved to Montgomery to assume the pastorate of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and Abernathy and his wife Juanita became close to King and his wife Coretta. Abernathy recalled: “Because of Jim Crow we could only have dinner at home. So the four of us had dinner every night, with Coretta preparing the meal one evening, Juanita the next. And usually conversations among the four of us would last way beyond midnight.” (Ironically, Abernathy would also share King’s last meal with him, a lunch of fried catfish on the day of King’s assassination.)
King and Abernathy shared a belief in the social gospel, a theology that calls for social justice as well as salvation. They also viewed nonviolent direct action as a means for achieving racial equality in the United States.
They began their first big nonviolent protest after Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955 for refusing a bus driver’s order to give up her bus seat to a white man. The next day, E. D. Nixon, a local NAACP leader, called Abernathy to seek his help in rallying support for a bus boycott. Abernathy took the lead in mobilizing the city’s black clergy and other local residents.
On December 5, Abernathy became program chairman of the newly organized Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) —and King was elected the MIA’s president. Almost a year later, in November, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation in Montgomery was illegal, and in the following month Abernathy joined King in riding the city’s first desegregated bus.
In January 1957 Abernathy was among a group of black ministers who gathered in Atlanta to organize a regional group to sustain and expand the bus protests that had occurred in Montgomery and other southern cities. This organization eventually became the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). King became president and Abernathy secretary-treasurer of the new group.
Between 1961 and 1965, Abernathy was jailed with King nineteen times during campaigns in Albany, Birmingham, Selma, and St. Augustine. In 1966, when the SCLC turned its focus to northern cities, Abernathy helped King direct the Chicago freedom movement. When King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Abernathy was at his side.
Four days after the assassination, Abernathy led 20,000 silent marchers through the streets of Memphis to honor King and to support the Memphis Sanitation Worker’s Strike.
With King gone, Abernathy assumed the presidency of SCLC and continued the Poor People’s Campaign. At Resurrection City in Washington, D.C., he told the crowds, “”You can kill the dreamer, but you can’t kill the dream.” He later admitted, however, that he felt he lacked many of King’s attributes. In 1977 Abernathy left SCLC to make an unsuccessful run to represent an Atlanta district in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Abernathy’s post-SCLC years were marked by continued outspokenness on civil rights issues and some controversy. In the 1980s, he broke ranks with most black leaders to support Ronald Reagan’s presidential candidacy. “Reagan promised me that he would make a jobs program a top priority for his administration,” he later explained. When Abernathy’s autobiography (And the Walls Came Tumbling Down) was published in 1989, he again sparked controversy by confirming reports of King’s “weakness for women.” Members of King’s family and some of his former SCLC associates publicly rebuked Abernathy, who defended himself by insisting that King’s dalliances had already been revealed. The following year, Abernathy died in Atlanta. He was sixty-four years old.