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Civil Rights Leader
Abernathy, the grandson of a slave, was born in Linden, Alabama. Ordained a Baptist minister in 1948, he studied at Alabama State College and Atlanta University. Abernathy met Martin Luther King in the early 1950's, when the two were ministers of congregations in Montgomery, Alabama. They became widely known after the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts in 1955-56.
In 1957, King and Abernathy formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), with King as President and Abernathy as Secretary-Treasurer. After King's assassination in 1968, Abernathy assumed the presidency, leading the Poor People's Campaign later that year. Abernathy also presided over SCLC's Operation Breadbasket, which used economic pressure against companies that did not provide equal opportunities to blacks. In 1977, he resigned from the SCLC to run unsuccessfully for Andrew Young's Atlanta seat in the US House of Representatives.
After the election, he served as pastor of the West Hunter Street Baptist Church in Atlanta. A year before his death, he published his autobiography, entitled And The Walls Came Tumbling Down.
Ralph Abernathy (1926-1990)
Ralph David Abernathy was born on March 11, 1926 in Linden, Alabama. His boyhood was spent on his father’s Alabama farm but he joined the U.S. Army and served in World War II from 1941 to 1945. After his service Abernathy returned to his home state where he attended Alabama State College in Montgomery, Alabama, receiving a degree in Mathematics in 1950.
During his years at Alabama State College, he became involved in protest activities. He led demonstrations protesting the lack of heat and hot water in his dormitory and the inferior food served by the college cafeteria. Abernathy also became a Baptist minister in 1948 while still in college. Abernathy attended Atlanta University, where he earned his M.A. degree in 1951. That same year he became pastor of the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, the largest African American church in the city. It was this pastoral post that eventually propelled him into the civil rights movement.
Rosa Parks’s refusal to sit at the back of a segregated city bus on December 1, 1955 sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Rev. Ralph Abernathy soon joined Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, in the protest. Both men became leaders of the effort and founders of the Montgomery Improvement Association which was the coordinating arm of the boycott. In 1957 King, Abernathy and other Southern black ministers created the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Atlanta, Georgia to continue the civil rights activism that began with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. King was selected as SCLC’s first president and Abernathy became secretary treasurer of the organization.
In 1961 Rev. Ralph Abernathy became the pastor of the West Hunter Street Baptist Church in Atlanta. From this new pastoral post he led the Albany Movement with Dr. Martin Luther King that year. For nearly a decade Rev. Abernathy was involved in every civil rights campaign launched by Dr. King. After the assassination of Dr. King in 1968, Rev. Abernathy immediately became President of SCLC and continued to lead the protests in that city in support of striking sanitation workers. He also vowed to continue Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign and led the campaign’s demonstrations in Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1968 and the Charleston Sanitation Workers Strike in 1969. The Poor People’s Campaign failed partly because Abernathy lacked the charisma of his friend, Martin Luther King, and partly because the nation’s mood was much more conservative on civil rights issues.
Rev. Ralph Abernathy continued to lead SCLC until growing tensions over the direction of the organization forced to his resignation in 1977. Later that year he ran unsuccessfully for Congress. Three years later Abernathy became the most prominent civil rights leader to endorse Ronald Reagan for President.
After 1977 Rev. Abernathy returned to his pastoral duties at West Hunter Avenue Baptist Church in Atlanta, a post he held until his death. In 1989 he published his autobiography, The Walls Came Tumbling Down. Rev. Ralph David Abernathy died of cardiac arrest on April 17, 1990 in Atlanta, Georgia.
“History will treat me right” by Ralph Abernathy (Black History Month)
We often say that history is written by winners. Yet in US history, even winners don’t always get to write in their viewpoints. Still, history is made by the Dreamers and their dreams.
In the US, Black History Month likely has its origins in 1926, when historian Carter G. Woodson and Association for the Study of Negro Life and History announced the second week of February to be “Negro History Week.”
Black History Month was officially recognized in 1970, and many other countries observe Black History Month whether officially or unofficially.
So, who encouraged the dream to continue after the downfall of the dreamer?
We all know of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, but many don’t know of his mentor and best friend, Pastor Ralph Abernathy.
Ralph Abernathy (March 11, 1926 – April 17, 1990) was a pastor, civil right movement activist, who said, “I don’t know what the future may hold, but I know who holds the future.”
Pastor Abernathy empathized with and led the people who were poor, who were treated unfairly, and he walked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Civil Rights Movement, Voting Right Acts, and even as a mediator of Wounded Knee Native American and FBI. He was the man that stood firmly and encouraged the people to keep the dream alive.
On April 17, 1990, he passed away from two blood clots that traveled to his heart and lungs.
He was buried in Lincoln Cemetery in Atlanta, Georgia. At Abernathy’s behest, his tomb has the simple inscription: “I TRIED.”
And less than two decades after his death, on January 20, 2009, Barack Obama swore in and became the first African American President, of the United States of America. He went on to serve two terms in the White House.
How he kept the Dream alive, and how, just as he said, Dream couldn’t be killed we remember Pastor Ralph Abernathy for his contribution to the Dream and its fulfillment.
History will treat you right, Pastor Ralph Abernathy.
Coree ILBO copyright © 2013-2020. All rights reserved.
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The Montgomery Bus Boycott had a huge impact when it earned national attention. It resulted to the court decision for unconstitutional bus segregation.
Abernathy’s house was bombed on 10 January 1957 due to the boycott. However, his family was safe.
Facts about Ralph Abernathy 8: the successful nonviolent movement
Abernathy and King made great partnership to organize the nonviolent movement not only in Montgomery but also in Birmingham, Georgia, Albany, Memphis and other cities.
Film, Video Abernathy family oral history interview conducted by Hasan Kwame Jeffries in Atlanta, Georgia, and Stuttgart, Germany, 2013 October 10.
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Civil Rights History Project collection (AFC 2010/039), American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
Set in Stone: The legacy and church of Dr. Ralph David Abernathy
Dr. Ralph David Abernathy was a confidant, close friend and co-strategist to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Though Dr. King will be remembered as the face of the Civil Rights Movement, national change was achieved through the hard work, sacrifice and dedication of many leaders and countless footsoldiers. In places like Atlanta, Georgia and Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. Abernathy worked with community leaders to rally people together to ensure that everyone would have their opportunity of grasping the American Dream.
Photo of Dr. Abernathy and Dr. King courtesy of Donzaleigh Abernathy.
Together, Dr. Abernathy and Dr. King led the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-1956 and following Southern Christian Leadership Conference campaigns that dismantled the systems of racial segregation and political disenfranchisement of people of color across the nation. Following Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, Dr. Abernathy continued to lead SCLC campaigns for human rights issues like poverty and education.
Photo of Dr. Abernathy courtesy of Donzaleigh Abernathy.
Dr. Abernathy pastored at West Hunter Street Baptist Church in Atlanta from 1961 until the congregation relocated to a new sanctuary in 1973. Under Abernathy’s pastorship, the church became a vibrant part of the community and a planning site for efforts with national implications through organizations like the SCLC. Within its stately stone walls, African American and Caucasian students were trained to conduct voter registration drives throughout the Deep South. This church will forever be linked to the legacy of Dr. Abernathy.
Photo of the West Hunter Street Baptist Church by National Park Service.
The church was vacant for decades and fell into a state of general disrepair. While the stone walls remained strong, the roof and interior deteriorated. Its beautiful stained glass windows suffered broken panes and water damage stained the sanctuary’s walls.
Photo of the needed repairs in the West Hunter Street Baptist Church by National Park Service.
Currently owned by the Ralph David Abernathy III Foundation, restoration efforts on this special building have already begun. In 2016, the National Park Service started a congressionally-authorized study to evaluate the historic church for its significance and as a potential unit. Efforts to rehabilitate the building and preserve its history will further enrich our understanding of this critical time of change in our nation and better tell the long overlooked story of Dr. Abernathy and other Civil Rights Movement leaders.
Photo of rehabilitation work courtesy of Barshr Coles.
The West Hunter Street Baptist Church project is an excellent example of work accomplished through African American Civil Rights Grants. Projects funded through this program introduce historic preservation as a beneficial influence within African American communities. For many communities, the term historic preservation is synonymous with gentrification and displacement. The African American Civil Rights Grant Program dispels this negative connotation.The awarded funds provide institutions and local stewards a resource critical to their efforts to maintain the history has helped shaped this country.
For more information regarding the NPS African American Civil Rights Grants Program please visit the program website.
Photo of the West Hunter Street Baptist Church by National Park Service.
Donzaleigh Abernathy discusses growing up the goddaughter of MLK Jr, the future of the civil rights movement
The daughter of legendary civil rights activist Ralph David Abernathy and goddaughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., Donzaleigh Abernathy has lived the kind of life that reads like a movie script — which makes sense, considering she’s actually spent time in front of the screen, as well, as an actor in the television show “The Walking Dead.” An accomplished author, her literary work “Partners To History, Martin Luther King, Ralph David Abernathy and the Civil Rights Movement” was once nominated as one of the Best Books for Young Adults by the American Library Association.
Now, Abernathy has added yet another notch to her professional belt as the soloist in a newly released social justice choral project called “ The Listening .” Written by composer Cheryl B. Engelhardt, the project was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1967 speech, "Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break Silence," which he gave exactly one year before his death.
We recently sat down to chat with her about what it was like growing up in the middle of the civil rights movement, her latest project and her thoughts on the latest generation of revolutionaries.
Let’s start at the beginning. I'd love to just hear a little bit about what it was like for you growing up as the goddaughter of such a cultural icon — what were your most poignant memories?
Well, I’m the youngest daughter of Ralph Abernathy, and my sister always stressed to me that [Martin Luther King, Jr.] was the godfather to all three of us. He officiated our christening ceremonies, and he was there to really help to raise the three of us. He was always, always, always there.
When I was a little girl growing up, I very seldom had time with my dad without Uncle Martin there. My mother was an amazing hostess and so Uncle Martin came over regularly. They were the best of friends. Then they moved to Atlanta, prior to the Freedom Riders, because Granddaddy King offered Uncle Martin a job, working at Ebenezer [Baptist Church], and he thought, “okay my son will be safe in Atlanta — he doesn't need to be down in Montgomery where they are openly violent.” Daddy and mother used to talk about how he called every single day, trying to convince us that we need to come.
My mother was like, “Listen, my husband is not going to Atlanta, Georgia, to work for the Senate, because my husband is a pastor, and he has to have a church.” My mother was very strong she was not a docile, quiet wife at all. She had an opinion and she wanted everybody to know it. She was an equal partner at the table, always. So, Granddaddy King went and found a church for my father, which is what literally moved us. I remember that moving day leaving Montgomery, and waiting for an Allied Van Lines truck with the orange on it.
Did you love Montgomery or did you feel conflicted about living there? Did you ever feel you were in danger?
Of course I felt danger living there, but I didn't know the difference because it was the only life I knew. We moved when I was four, so even when you're little like that, you just go with the flow of what the environment provides for you.
I knew there was danger when the policemen were there in the backyard. My mother always told us about, and we had a photograph on the wall of, our old house that was firebombed. The white supremacists would call in the morning and threaten to kill us, and then they would call again in the evening.
I was so young, but my sister was very traumatized by the whole thing, so we made up our own little baby language. As soon as I got old enough to speak, my sister asked me to speak for her. She wanted to not speak, so I would do the talking. And I guess life was pretty exciting.
The Freedom Riders — that part was thrilling. But there was an element of danger about Montgomery. Montgomery was a very small town. The nice thing was my grandmother lived not far away in Uniontown, Alabama and my father's relatives, all of his brothers and sisters, lived in Linden, all near Selma. So, with lots of relatives not far away, that was lovely. My father had been a professor at Alabama State University, so we were part of the college community as well, which gives you a comfortable sheltering environment.
However, the civil rights movement at that point was pretty rough and violent. When my mother had been pregnant with me was when they bombed our home and my father's church, and they also bombed the home of Reverend and Mrs. Robert Gratz, a white pastor of a black congregation.
White people would come to our house because they were an integrated group, like Glenn Smiley, who talks about non violence, he was always around. But whenever white people were over, the police would sit outside and then take down the license plates of the people who came to my parents’ house to socialize, and then harass those people afterwards. I was aware of that.
As a kid did feeling this way ever confuse you? Were you confused about why these types of things were happening and why people felt this way?
I did have some confusion about why some white people didn't like Black people, and didn't want to be associated with us, and why there was segregation, and why they had a white bathroom and why there was a Black bathroom.
Why was there a white water fountain, which was nice and cold? Why was there a Black water fountain whose water was always warm, and the sink was so small and dirty?
I didn't understand because there were other white people that were in our lives that came into our home, and they were loving and they were not representative of what I assumed the rest of white people thought. That's the confusion that I still have today.
When you're the victim of racial injustice on a daily basis, whether there is a racial slight that is physical and violent toward you, or a sneer, or a woman holding her purse, or the way people look at you. These slights, the lack of courtesy, you know it just throws you and it's just the reality when you are a person of color in America.
The question is, “why do they feel so entitled to be so ill mannered based on the color of your skin?” Manners are not a coat to take on and off — you need to be gracious and kind to everyone, regardless of their race, or their economic situation. They are human beings. So, the separation, I didn't understand. And I still have trouble grappling with this, even today.
That's something I've been thinking about a lot, wondering how children are feeling growing up today, witnessing the protests of last year and the confusion that they might feel.
You see when you have protests though, that's not confusing. It's very clear. That is letting people know that there is injustice. And we're standing up and speaking out against that injustice. Children aren’t confused by that.
What children are confused about is the duplicitous environment where you have a parent that treats a person of a different race or different ethnicity differently, and then they see a white person and their parent is happy and gracious and kind. There’s a different tone, and children can feel and see the intangible, unspoken energy that is being conveyed. That's what's confusing to them.
Speaking of this up-and-coming generation, it was mentioned to me also that you had a hand in mentoring the rising poet, Amanda Gorman. How do you feel about her recent accomplishments and about her generation?
The thing about this new generation today is that they're very clear. They're very smart, and they're very aware. Thankfully, they have the internet and social media where they can communicate with each other and they communicate very honestly with each other.
So, they understand why Colin Kaepernick took a knee, and that it wasn’t a slight against our national anthem, it was him asking for justice for people of color — for those who are being killed disproportionately in the streets across America, by law enforcement, or if not by law enforcement, like in Georgia, when a young man was simply running in his neighborhood. So I think young people understand.
The other thing about this young generation is that they are the victims of gun violence in their classrooms, in their schools and where they attend concerts. They want to be able to go to school without fear and they want to grow up in a healthy, free environment, so they're very clear and very outspoken about it. When they jump into organizing these marches and take to the streets all across America, they’re showing legislators that they need to understand.
It reminds me of the young people of the 60s, who spun off of the civil rights movement and were against the war in Vietnam. When I was growing up, they were my heroes. My father used to drive us to a certain section of downtown on the weekends, so that we could see all the young hippies holding protest signs. They were so committed, and they are very much like how the young people are today. They are my hope.
I first met Amanda Gorman and her sister at New Roads School, where I'd sit on the floor and tell them stories about the civil rights movement. Amanda started watching me from first grade all the way through 12th grade, and so it was really incredible when in 2013 Amanda contacted her priest and told them that she wanted to have a celebration to honor the 50th anniversary of the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church, and wanted me to come and speak.
I was blown away that this young girl had put this all together, and after that, she decided I had to come back to the high school to speak. When I went back to speak then she wanted to organize something else. I'm so inspired by her, and very proud of her.
What do you think your parents would think about what's happening right now in America?
I honestly believe that they would be so inspired by the young people and the Black Lives Matter movement. The beautiful thing is it is a much more diverse movement than the civil rights movement, which is incredibly wonderful.
The diversity of that movement and the fact that people have come together not only in America but all over the world is inspirational. People have taken to the streets and spoken openly about racial injustice, and so I know that they would be very inspired by that. I know that they would ask me to make sure that I am a part of every march and every demonstration, and to try and speak wherever I can.
I know that they would be asking us as a nation to come together. And the way for us to come together right now is for the members of Congress to reach out to their fellow elected officials and appeal to them to do that which is morally right.
My parents would be reaching out to support Speaker Pelosi and her efforts. They would be smiling from ear to ear — I know my mother would – because of our vice president Kamala Harris, who marched with my mother across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. And I know that my father would be so proud of our President Joseph Robinette Biden because when I was young, my father admired him as a senator. They would be asking us to be actively involved in any way that we could to help him to succeed, because the task before him to unite America is a difficult one. But it is a necessary one.
To wrap up, I'm wondering if there's anything that you're involved in that you want readers to keep their eye on?
I want everyone to hear “ The Listening .” It's absolutely beautiful, and it's about silence and listening, and the new spirit rising. Cheryl [ B. Engelhardt] 's song speaks to the awakening in the hearts of the young people across America and the world.
It’s wonderful that Cheryl takes this speech [The Listening is inspired by Martin Luther King's 1967 speech "Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break Silence"], and it inspires her to create a magnificent masterpiece of a song. I do my best to be the soloist in it, but I think it needs to be a part of something even bigger that Cheryl needs to compose because she's a brilliant composer, and she has an eye that's different. I'm blown away that she even asked me to participate. I'm humbled by it, and it literally makes me cry.
You can listen to and watch Cheryl B. Engelhardt’s “The Listening” here .
Pastor, Civil Rights Leader, and Confidante to MLK
In 1951, Abernathy was appointed pastor of the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala.
Like most southern towns in the early 1950s, Montgomery was filled with racial strife. African-Americans could not vote because of stringent state laws. There were segregated public facilities, and racism was rife. To combat these injustices, African-Americans organized strong local branches of the NAACP. Septima Clarke developed citizenship schools that would train and educate African-Americans to use civil disobedience to fight against southern racism and injustice. Vernon Johns, who had been the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church before King, had also been active in combating racism and discrimination--he’d supported young African-American women who had been assaulted by white men to press charges and also refused to take a seat in the back of a segregated bus.
Within four years, Rosa Parks, a member of the local NAACP and graduate of Clarke’s Highland Schools refused to sit at the back of a segregated public bus. Her actions put Abernathy and King in a position to lead African-Americans in Montgomery. King’s congregation, already encouraged to participate in civil disobedience was ready to lead the charge. Within days of Parks’ actions, King and Abernathy established the Montgomery Improvement Association, which would coordinate a boycott of the city’s transportation system. As a result, Abernathy’s home and church were bombed by white residents of Montgomery. Abernathy would not end his work as a pastor or civil rights activist. The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted 381 days and ended with integrated public transportation.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott helped Abernathy and King forge a friendship and a working relationship. The men would work on every civil rights campaign together until King’s assassination in 1968.
By 1957, Abernathy, King, and other African-American southern ministers established the SCLC. Based out of Atlanta, Abernathy was elected secretary-treasurer of the SCLC.
Four years later, Abernathy was appointed as pastor of the West Hunter Street Baptist Church in Atlanta. Abernathy used this opportunity to lead the Albany Movement with King.
In 1968, Abernathy was appointed the president of SCLC after King’s assassination. Abernathy continued to lead the sanitation workers to strike in Memphis. By the Summer of 1968, Abernathy was leading demonstrations in Washington D.C. for the Poor People’s Campaign. As a result of demonstrations in Washington DC with the Poor People’s Campaign, the Federal Food Stamps Program was established.
The following year, Abernathy was working with men on the Charleston Sanitation Worker’s Strike.
Although Abernathy lacked the charisma and oratory skills of King, he worked fervently to keep the civil rights movement relevant in the United States. The mood of the United States was changing, and the civil rights movement was also in transition.
Abernathy continued to serve the SCLC until 1977. Abernathy returned to his position at West Hunter Avenue Baptist Church. In 1989, Abernathy published his autobiography, The Walls Came Tumbling Down.
“Selma” overlooks the role of Ralph Abernathy
The nationwide release of the film Selma, which concentrates on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the 1965 Selma marches for the cause of African-American voting rights in the segregated South, has been received with much fanfare and enthusiastic accolades. It is likely to be short-listed for “Best Picture” from the voters in this year’s Academy Awards.
Questions have been raised, however, about the film’s historical accuracy in its depiction of LBJ’s relationship to Dr. King, and his role in securing the Voting Rights Act, first by Joseph A. Califano Jr., chief advisor for domestic affairs to Johnson, and then by many others.
A major distortion that film critics did not notice was the absence of Ralph Abernathy who as King’s chief lieutenant, was always by his side during the marches. King said that he “was the best friend I have in the world.” Dr. Abernathy travelled together, often sharing the same hotel rooms, jail cells, and leisure times with their wives, children, family, and friends. They fought together against segregation and discrimination, helped to establish new legislation, and tried to instill a new sense of pride, dignity, and self-worth in African Americans.
Abernathy suffered bombings, beatings by southern policemen and State Troopers, 44 arrests, and daily death threats against his life and those of his wife and children. His family’s land and automobile were confiscated and he had to re-purchase his automobile at a public auction. Some of his colleagues and some volunteers in the civil rights movement who worked with him were murdered.
Why, then, is Abernathy not shown at King’s side during the marches in Selma? Instead, he has been removed in much the same way they did it in Stalin’s Soviet Union, where photos of purged leaders who stood next to Stalin were erased and encyclopedia entries about them taken out of new editions.