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Abernathy, Ralph Davidlocked

(11 March 1926–17 April 1990)
  • Kenneth H. Williams

Ralph Abernathy

Photograph by Warren K. Leffler, 1968.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (U.S. News and World Report Collection: LC-U9-19265).

Abernathy, Ralph David (11 March 1926–17 April 1990), civil rights leader and minister, was born David Abernathy in Linden, Alabama, the son of William L. Abernathy and Louivery Valentine Bell, farmers. A sister’s favorite professor was the inspiration for the nickname “Ralph David,” and although Abernathy never made a legal change, the name remained with him from age twelve.

Abernathy’s parents owned a 500-acre farm, one of the more successful in Marengo County. His father, a community leader, served as head deacon of the local Baptist church for nearly forty years, became the first black in the county to vote and serve on a jury, and contributed heavily to building and maintaining schools in the area, including Linden Academy, the high school Ralph attended.

From the time he was a child, Abernathy aspired to the ministry. As he related in his autobiography, “The preacher, after all, was the finest and most important person around, someone who was accorded respect wherever he went” (p. 12). But before he could pursue his calling, he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1944. Arriving in Europe just before Germany surrendered, Abernathy, who had been named sergeant of his platoon, saw no action. A bout with rheumatic fever spared him from transfer to the Pacific theater, where all but one member of his company were killed.

Drafted prior to graduating, Abernathy had to pass a high school equivalency test before matriculating at Alabama State College (now University) in Montgomery in the fall of 1945. The GI Bill paid for his education, and he took advantage of the opportunity, making good grades, acting in drama productions, and participating in student government. As president of the student council, Abernathy organized a boycott of the school cafeteria to gain better food and better treatment for the students. The next year, while junior class president, he led a successful protest for improved housing conditions.

During the summer of 1950, having graduated in the spring, Abernathy became the first black disc jockey at a white Montgomery radio station. In the fall he enrolled in graduate school at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University), where he planned to earn a sociology degree before going on to seminary. He had publicly announced his call to the ministry two years earlier, and one Sunday an Atlanta University classmate took him to hear a visiting seminary student, Martin Luther King, Jr.“I sat there burning with envy at his learning and confidence,” Abernathy remembered. “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 holler loud enough when he wanted to. Even then I could tell that he was a man with a special gift from God” (Abernathy, p. 89).

Completing his course work in one year, Abernathy returned to Alabama State in 1951 to become dean of men. He also accepted the pastorate of Eastern Star Baptist Church in Demopolis. That congregation met only twice a month, and on the alternate weeks Abernathy soon became the regular interim pastor at Montgomery’s historic First Baptist Church. Only twenty-six years old, he “never expected to be considered” for the permanent position there, but when church leaders heard that another congregation in the city was going to call Abernathy, they quickly made their offer. By March 1952 the job was his. That August he married Juanita Odessa Jones, and although the couple’s first child died as an infant, four others lived to adulthood.

Abernathy had begun to establish himself in the community by the time King took the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church pastorate in 1954. The two became immediate friends, and their families dined together nearly every night. “It was an exciting time,” recalled Abernathy, as both men were looking for ways that they could start trying to change the racial situation in the area. “Martin had some general ideas about the means of attaining freedom,” said Abernathy, “while I had the specific understanding of Montgomery that he lacked.” Using a military analogy, he explained that while the philosophic King, who was actually three years his junior, “was talking about strategy (the broad, overall purpose of a campaign), I was thinking about tactics (how to achieve that strategy through specific action)” (Abernathy, pp. 129–30). Both felt that it would be several years before they could begin implementing their plans.

They were wrong. Rosa Parks was arrested on 1 December 1955, and organizing of the Montgomery bus boycott began, with King and Abernathy playing major roles. The parties involved formed the Montgomery Improvement Association, electing King president and Abernathy program coordinator. The boycott lasted just over a year, drawing national attention and resulting in the desegregation of the city bus system. Abernathy and King had an opportunity to test their plans of nonviolent social change, but they also learned the price that would come with it. Each man’s house was bombed, as was Abernathy’s church.

The bombings of Abernathy’s home and church took place in January 1957, while both men were in Atlanta at the organizational meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the group under whose auspices they would carry out their subsequent protests. King was elected president and Abernathy secretary-treasurer.

In August 1958 Abernathy turned in his thesis, finally completing his master’s degree in sociology at Atlanta University. That same month, while he was in his study at the church, a man confronted him with a pistol and hatchet, claiming that Abernathy was having an affair with his wife. “He wants to kill me!” Abernathy cried as he raced out of the office and down the street. Police arrested his pursuer, and although Abernathy did not want to press charges, the city prosecuted the embarrassing case.

King moved to Atlanta in 1960 to become copastor at his father’s church, and he soon began trying to persuade Abernathy to join him. Abernathy and his wife resisted, but at the end of 1961 he accepted the call of Atlanta’s West Hunter Street Baptist Church. “In retrospect,” Abernathy noted, “I realize the degree to which this move defined for Martin and me the strength and importance of our friendship” (Abernathy, p. 199). “Abernathy was the glue for Martin King’s soul,” recalled another member of the civil rights movement, who described Abernathy as King’s pastor. “He gave him counsel, he gave him solace, he gave him perspective” (Garrow, Bearing the Cross, p. 366).

As King led protests in Albany, Birmingham, St. Augustine, Selma, and other communities, Abernathy was usually by his side and often ended up sharing a jail cell with him. They complemented each other, with the folksy Abernathy, who became known as the pastor of the movement, able to connect with the lower and middle classes in ways that the eloquent King could not. The target areas were carefully selected. “We were always on the lookout for localities that had particularly harsh regimes,” wrote Abernathy, “cities that were oppressive beyond the ordinary limits of southern society” (p. 282).

Danger was ever present, leading King to ask in early 1965 that the SCLC designate Abernathy as his heir apparent should anything happen to him. Some insisted that Abernathy was jealous of King’s fame, that King made this pronouncement after winning the Nobel Prize to keep his top lieutenant from going “berserk with envy.” King’s wife, Coretta, while admitting that “Ralph almost forced him into putting him in this position,” also pointed out that her husband felt that he had “few people he could rely on” (Garrow, Bearing the Cross, p. 417).

When King was shot in Memphis in April 1968, Abernathy made the ambulance ride with him and remained by his side during his last moments. Abernathy was unanimously confirmed as the new president of the SCLC and continued forward with the organization’s next major undertaking, the Poor People’s Campaign, a march on Washington, D.C. Its minor successes, mainly in the form of legislation, were overshadowed by the disorganization and squalor of the plyboard “Resurrection City” that the marchers built near the Lincoln Memorial and by increased bickering among the SCLC leadership. Later that summer Abernathy led a demonstration at the 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami.

In Charleston, South Carolina, in 1969 the SCLC helped to win a favorable settlement in a hospital workers strike, with Abernathy spending two weeks in jail for leading demonstrations. He was involved in planning the march from Perry, Georgia, to Atlanta in 1970 and was arrested again during a 1971 protest of the firing of three black teachers in Choctaw County, Alabama. Public interest in civil rights was waning, however, and so were contributions to the SCLC. Abernathy submitted his resignation in August 1973, criticizing blacks who “now occupy high positions made possible through our struggle … but [who] will not support the SCLC financially” (Fairclough, p. 397). Talked into staying, he remained SCLC president until 1977, when a bid to fill Andrew Young’s vacated congressional seat offered him a graceful way out.

Abernathy lost the race, but he continued efforts to aid the poor, forming the Foundation for Economic Enterprises Development (FEED) in the early 1980s. He remained pastor of West Hunter Street Baptist Church until his death. In 1989 Abernathy published his autobiography, a widely acclaimed account of the inner workings of the civil rights movement that also generated controversy because it acknowledged King’s extramarital affairs. He died in Atlanta the following year.

If he was envious of King during the heyday of the movement, Abernathy had realized by the time he wrote his memoirs that his legacy was inexorably linked to that of his best friend. “We were a team,” he related, “and each of us was severely crippled without the other” (p. 478).

Bibliography

The organizational records of the SCLC are at the King Center Library and Archives in Atlanta. Abernathy’s And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: An Autobiography (1989) is selective in the civil rights ground that it covers but is the most thorough depiction of his life and his role in the movement. His master’s thesis, “The Natural History of a Social Movement: The Montgomery Improvement Association” (Atlanta Univ., 1958), was published in The Walking City: The Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955–1956, ed. David J. Garrow (1989). Garrow’s Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1986), Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63 (1988), and Stephen B. Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1982), include numerous references. Adam Fairclough, To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr. (1987), has a chapter called “The Abernathy Years.” Henry Hampton et al., eds., Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s (1990), has several statements by Abernathy, who is mentioned, if not quoted, in the majority of works on the movement. Of particular relevance is Andrew Young, An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America (1996). Recorded speeches include Birmingham, Alabama, 1963: Mass Meeting (1980) and The Sit-in Story (1961); notable among his interviews is his 29 Mar. 1970 appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” Catherine Reef, Ralph David Abernathy (1995), is a biography for young readers. An obituary is in the New York Times, 18 Apr. 1990.