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Juanita Abernathy (2019), civil rights leader

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The wife of Rev. Ralph Abernathy, she helped plan the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Juanita Abernathy was one of the last remaining civil rights leaders who were there at the beginning of the modern Civil Rights Movement. The wife of civil rights giant Rev. Ralph Abernathy, she was actively involved in the movement, especially as the Montgomery Bus Boycott lit a spark that brought nationwide attention to the civil rights struggle. Abernathy wrote the business plan that helped guide the bus boycott, and she hosted meetings of the key players who worked on the boycott. As the nation’s civil rights leaders gathered around the Abernathys’ kitchen table and ate the meals she prepared for them, she became known as “the cook of the Civil Rights Movement.” She taught voter education classes, and she fed and housed Freedom Riders as they traveled the South to challenge segregation. She remained active long after the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and in 2015, the Congressional Black Caucus honored her with their Phoenix Award.

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Died: September 12, 2019 (Who else died on September 12?)

Details of death: Died at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta at the age of 87.


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Risking her life for the cause: In January 1957, when the Abernathys were living in Montgomery, Ralph Abernathy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Atlanta to organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Abernathy, who was pregnant at the time, stayed in Montgomery. So she was at home in the early morning hours of January 10, when white supremacists bombed their house. She wasn’t hurt, but the house was destroyed. It was one of five bombing targets that night, including First Baptist Church, where her husband was senior pastor.

Notable quote: “When I started off in ’55 in Montgomery, recognition and honor was nowhere in my mind. I started when there were no cameras and no newspapers writing nice things about you, instead they were writing all sorts of ugly things. But we kept going. It wasn’t about us. It wasn’t about me. It has always been about right and righteousness. Justice and equality. Not just for me and my family, but for all of God’s children.” —from an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ,in 2013, when she was being honored by the Atlanta City Council.

What people said about her: “We mourn the passing of Juanita Abernathy, who used her hands, voice and heart to lead our nation towards a more perfect union. A venerable civil rights leader, she understood our fight would be long but change will come. May God bless the Abernathy family in their time of grief.” —Stacey Abrams, former Georgia Representative

“I am so sad to learn of the passing of this great lady. She was never just the woman behind the man, but stood shoulder to shoulder with her husband and Dr. & Mrs. King. RIP Ms. Abernathy. Enjoy your homecoming.” —Sen. Doug Jones

“Her family’s home was bombed, their lives threatened, she persisted. Alongside Coretta Scott King, she was a “shero” of the movement, raising a family, supporting a husband. And changing the nation.” —news anchor Jovita Moore

Full obituary: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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