Ralph David Abernathy

Ralph Abernathy/WSFA
Ralph Abernathy/WSFA

Civil Rights leader Ralph David Abernathy was born in March 1926 in Linden, AL. He served as Martin Luther King's chief aide during the Civil Rights struggle of the 1950's and 1960's.

He was the son of a Marengo County farmer. His father, William L, Abernathy, who owned a 500-acre farm in Marengo County, supported the Linden Academy, a local high school for blacks, and was said to be the first black ever asked to serve on a grand jury in his county.

His grandparents were born slaves. An ordained Baptist minister, Abernathy earned his B.S. degree from Alabama State and his M.A. degree from Atlanta University. Abernathy's fight for civil rights all began with his first boycott at Alabama State University; his college dormitory was a barracks that rarely had heat or hot water. Not long after that he led a boycott of the university lunch room because the meals were terrible. He also served in the Army during the Second World War.

Abernathy served as the pastor of First Baptist Church(Colored) in Montgomery starting in 1951. In 1955, he organized the Montgomery Improvement Association. He began his association with Dr. King when King became pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church a few years later. Abernathy joined with King to organize the boycott of Montgomery's segregated city bus system which lasted a year and brought about the system's desegregation in 1956. This boycott, which was ignited by Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, is considered by many the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.

In 1957, a year after a Federal court issued an injunction that gave blacks and whites equal status on buses, Abernathy's home and church were bombed. He and his family were not harmed, but the church was destroyed.

In 1957 King, Abernathy, and Bayard Rustin founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King served as president and Abernathy served as secretary-treasurer. The Conference was founded to organize the struggle against segregation in the South. The conference was committed to non-violence and adopted the motto "Not one hair of one head of one person should be harmed." Over the next few years Abernathy was arrested 19 times.

Abernathy moved to Atlanta in 1961 and was named vice-president of the SCLC. He worked side-by-side with Dr. King until King's assassination in 1968. Mr. Abernathy was with King the day of the assassination and cradled King's bloody head as Dr. King lay mortally wounded on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

Mr. Abernathy then took care of some details of the funeral and delivered the eulogy for his friend. The two had marched together, addressed friendly and hostile audiences together, faced violence together, and on many an occasion gone to jail together.

After the assassination, Abernathy became president of the SCLC. He directed the Poor People's March in Washington (May, 1968), helped organize the Atlanta sanitation workers' strike (1968) and the Charleston hospital workers' strike (1969). He went on to organize the SCLC Operation Breadbasket, to exert financial pressure against companies that had poor records in extending equal opportunities to blacks. Abernathy served as president of the SCLC until 1977 when he resumed his pastorship of West Hunter Street Baptist Church in Atlanta and served for many years.

Abernathy published his biography, "And the Walls Came Tumbling Down," in 1989. He told C-Spans's Brian Lamb that he wrote his story for the youth of America. "I just wanted to tell my story and to show the youth of America, the children of America, that you may be locked in poverty and you may have a difficult time surviving but you can be... something and somebody if you do not lose your sense of worth and dignity and somebody-ness." He died on April 17, 1990 in Atlanta.