Born on this day in 1926, Ralph Abernathy grew up in Linden, Alabama with his eleven siblings. His father, William Abernathy, was the son of a slave and had been a sharecropper before purchasing his own 500-acre farm. William became one of the leading figures in the local black community, becoming the first African American in Marengo County to serve on a grand jury and the first to vote.
After graduating high school at the Linden Academy, Ralph Abernathy served in the military during WWII, rising to the rank of Platoon Sergeant before being discharged. He then attended Alabama State University, where he graduated in 1950 with a degree in mathematics before going on to get his masters in sociology at Atlanta University.
While in college, he also became a Baptist minister. And aside from his formal education, he also organized and led protests calling for better cafeteria food and living conditions – experiences that would serve him well later in life.
At age 26, Abernathy became full-time minister at the First Baptist Church, Montgomery’s largest black congregation. Three years later, a man he’d met while at school in Atlanta became minister at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The two soon became good friends. That man’s name was Martin Luther King Jr.
The turning point in Abernathy’s life – and indeed, a turning point for life in America – came on December 1, 1955 when a black woman named Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus to make way for white riders. She was a coworker of Abernathy’s at the NAACP, and her arrest led King and Abernathy to form the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) in order to organize a boycott protesting Montgomery’s policy of segregated busing.
Three quarters of the city’s bus patrons were black, and the well-organized boycott had an immediate impact. When King was arrested and given a sentence of 386 days in jail, it brought national attention to the protest. The boycott would last over a year, until December 1956, when a federal ruling found bus segregation to be unconstitutional. Angry whites responded by firebombing Abernathy’s home and church, as well as those of King.
The boycott made Martin Luther King Jr. a nationally known figure, his impassioned speeches turning him into the face of the Civil Rights Movement while Abernathy remained largely in the background. The two men formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, with the aim of taking what they had learned in Montgomery and spreading organized, nonviolent civil rights protests throughout the South.
During the next thirteen years, King's and Abernathy’s tireless leadership brought the struggle for civil rights to Albany, Birmingham, Mississippi, Washington, Selma, St. Augustine, Chicago and Memphis as they helped spearhead marches, sit-ins, and other non-violent actions aimed at winning equal rights for African Americans. Abernathy was with King when he delivered the famous “I Have a Dream” speech during the August 28, 1963 March on Washington that helped gain passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965).
They were hard won victories. Abernathy was jailed 44 times, beaten by police, endured bombings and death threats and the confiscation of his property. As both a colleague and a friend to King, he travelled with King constantly, riding in buses next to him, sharing the same jail cells and hotel rooms. On April 3, 1968, addressing a crowd at the Mason Temple in Memphis, King said, “Ralph Abernathy is the best friend I have in the world.” After delivering his speech, King returned with Abernathy to Room 306 of the Lorraine Hotel, a room they stayed in so often it was unofficially known as “The King-Abernathy Suite.”
The following night at 6:01 PM, a single shot rang out. King, who had been standing on the balcony outside the hotel room, was hit by an assassin’s bullet. Ralph Abernathy ran from the room to find his friend prone on the floor. King died in his arms.
In the wake of the tragedy, Abernathy assumed leadership of the SCLC. But King’s death marked an important turning point in the Civil Rights Movement. Many felt that nonviolence was too slow in bringing about change, and that after gaining key legislative victories, the movement had stalled out. A more radical Black Power movement rejected the idea of integration, with some factions arguing violence against their oppressors was morally justified. And whereas the early Civil Rights struggle largely played out in mid-sized Deep South towns like Montgomery and Selma, the new battlegrounds were increasingly urban – Chicago, Oakland, Watts.
The SCLC lost much of its influence as a result, but Abernathy remained an important and respected figure in the struggle for equality, addressing the United Nations on the subject of world peace in 1971 and being called upon to mediate between the F.B.I. and activists from the American Indian Movement during the 1973 standoff at Wounded Knee.
Abernathy stepped down from the SCLC in 1977 and staged an unsuccessful bid for Georgia’s 5th Congressional seat. Two years later, he joined Edward Kennedy’s losing presidential campaign before making headlines by endorsing Ronald Reagan – an endorsement he would publicly regret and withdraw when Reagan sought a second term.
Abernathy would again cause a stir in 1989 with his autobiography And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, an account of his time with Martin Luther King, when he admitted King had “a weakness for women” – a comment that angered those who had lionized King without acknowledging that, despite his vision and courage and the overwhelmingly positive change he had brought to the country, Martin Luther King Jr. had been a human being with human flaws.
Abernathy died on the morning of April 17, 1990. Though less celebrated than King – there’s no national holiday in his honor, no memorial to him in Washington D.C. – Abernathy fought tirelessly for freedom and equality, and we would do well to honor his memory on what would have been his 85th birthday.