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 on Ralph David Abernathy
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).