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Ralph David Abernathy (March 11, 1926 – April 17, 1990) was a leader of the American Civil Rights Movement of the 20th Century, a minister, civil rights leader and a close associate of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Following King's assassination, Dr. Abernathy took up the leadership of the SCLC Poor People's Campaign and led the March on Washington, D.C. that had been planned for May 1968. Ralph David Abernathy was awarded five Honorary Doctorate degrees.

Early life

Ralph David Abernathy, Sr., was born March 11, 1926, on his father's 500-acre farm in Linden, Alabamamarker. After serving in the United States Army during World War II, he enrolled at Alabama State Universitymarker, in Montgomery, Alabamamarker, graduating with Honors and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Mathematics in 1950. At Alabama State University, he would later become a professor of mathematics and a dean. His interest in philosophy and involvement in political activism developed in college as the Student Body President, while he was a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, where he led demonstrations protesting the lack of heat and hot water in his dormitory and food service in the cafeteria. In 1951 he earned a Masters of Science in Sociology from Atlanta University (later Clark Atlanta University). As the Vice President of the Montgomery Improvement Association, he completed his Master’s Thesis in Sociology for Atlanta University, The Natural History of A Social Movement: The Montgomery Improvement Association, which was first referenced in 1984 and published in 1989

In the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, Abernathy, then pastor at the First Baptist Churchmarker, organized the first mass meeting calling for what would become the Montgomery Bus Boycott. At the end of the boycott, on January 10, 1957, his church and his house (1327 South Hall Street) were bombed; his wife, Juanita, and infant daughter, Juandalynn, were unharmed.

Although they first met in Atlanta while still in school, as young ministers in Montgomery Abernathy and Martin Luther King, Jr., formed a close and lifelong friendship and partnership, which ended April 4, 1968, when King died in Abernathy's arms.

Civil rights work

He attended Linden Academy, a Baptist school founded by the First Mt. Pleasant District Association, financially supported by his father, who always said, “the bottom rail will come to the top, one day and justice will not always be denied to the colored man.” His gentle father taught him, “If you see a good fight, get in it and fight to win it!” At Linden Academy, David conducted his first demonstration to protest the inferior Science Lab. Because of his persistence, the Science Lab was improved.

During World War II, David enlisted in the military as Ralph David, changing his name and rose to the rank of Platoon Sergeant before earning an honorable discharged because of his long term hospitalization in Europe for Rheumatic Fever.

After military service in 1945, he enrolled in Alabama State Teacher College, now called Alabama State Universitymarker in Montgomery, Alabamamarker where he became student body President and Class President. He graduated with High Honors and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Mathematics.

While still a college student, he announced his call to the ministry, which he had envisioned since he was a small boy coming up in a devout Baptist family. He preached his first sermon on the second Sunday in May, 1948, Mother Day in honor of his recently deceased mother.

Abernathy began his professional career in 1950, when he was appointed Personnel Director at Alabama State University and later assumed the position of Dean of Men and Professor of Social Studies and Mathematics. During this period, he hosted a radio show and became the first black man on radio in Montgomery. In February 1952, he was called as the Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church, the largest black church in Montgomery, Alabama, where he served for ten years.

He married Juanita Odessa Jones of Uniontown, Alabama on August 31, 1952 and their union produced five children, Ralph David Abernathy Jr., (August 16, 1953 - August 18, 1953), Juandalynn Ralpheda, Donzaleigh Avis, Ralph David III and Kwame Luthuli Abernathy.

On December 1, 1955 in response to the arrest of his NAACP co-worker, Rosa Parks, Abernathy and his dearest friend, Dr. Martin Luther King, organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Co-Founded the American Civil Rights Movement. The Montgomery Improvement Association led the successful 381 days transit boycott that challenged “Jim Crow” Segregation laws and ended Alabama’s bus segregation, which heralded the beginning of a Movement.

While actively involved in the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, he completed his Master’s Degree in Sociology at Atlanta University. His master’s thesis, “The Natural History of A Social Movement: The Montgomery Improvement Association,” was published by Carlson Publishing in David Garrow’s book entitled, “The Walking City – The Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955-1956.”

The Abernathy home and church were bombed January 1957, along with Mt. Olive Church, Bell Street Church and the home of Rev. Robert Graetz, the evening that Dr. King, Dr. Abernathy and other Ministers were planning to convene to create the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Atlanta, Ga. Dr. King and Dr. Abernathy immediately returned to Montgomery, leaving Mrs. Coretta Scott King to conduct the first meeting of SCLC. Dr. Abernathy served as SCLC’s first Financial Secretary / Treasurer and Vice President At-Large, the years that Dr. King was the President, until Dr. Abernathy assumed the presidency at Dr. King’s request upon his death.

After the pivotal success of the Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Birmingham and Huntsville, in 1961, Dr. King insisted Rev. Abernathy assume the Pastorate of the West Hunter Street Baptist Church in Atlanta, moving his family from Montgomery, Alabama in 1962 , where he served as the Senior Pastor until the time of his death.

The King/Abernathy partnership spearheaded successful nonviolent movements in Montgomery, Albany, Birmingham, Mississippi, Washington, Selma, St. Augustine, Chicago and Memphis. Their work helped to secure the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Bill of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the abolition of Jim Crow Segregation Laws in the southern United States.

For 13 turbulent years, from 1955 until Dr. King’s death on April 4, 1968, Dr. King and Dr. Abernathy journeyed together, every step of the way and were inseparable as best friends, sharing the same hotel rooms, jail cells and leisure times with their wives, children, family and friends, all the way to the end. By tearing down the walls of segregation, discrimination and helping to establish new legislation, Dr. King and Dr. Abernathy were able to instill a new sense of pride, dignity and self-worth in millions of African Americans and people of all colors, all over the world. Their Civil and Human Rights Movement serves as an inspiration and model of America’s principled non violent struggle for freedom, justice and equality.

Abernathy endured with equanimity devastating bombings, violent and brutal beatings by southern policemen and State Troopers, 44 arrests, daily death threats upon his life, and the lives of his wife and children. He endured the confiscation of his inheritance of family land and his automobile, which his family had to re-purchase at public auction. He endured the continual terrorizing of Dr. King, threats and the bombing of the King home, the murders of colleagues, the murders of their civil rights workers, the murders of volunteering college students in the struggle, the murders of visiting ministers, the murder of a young white housewife who went to Selma and the murders of five innocent children in Birmingham. Dr. King and Dr. Abernathy undauntedly and unrelentingly marched the streets of the South proclaiming, “Let my people go.”

On April 4, 1968, Abernathy was with Martin Luther King in Memphis, Tennesseemarker when King was assassinated. They shared Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel The night before at the Mason Temple, Abernathy introduced Dr. King before he made his last public address and King said at the beginning of his speech that "Ralph Abernathy is the best friend I have in the world." Dr. Abernathy cradled Martin Luther King, Jr., his dearest friend in his arms, as he took his last breaths and died.

Assuming the mantle of the Civil Rights Movement and the Presidency of the SCLC, a grief stricken Abernathy led a march to support striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. In May 1968, Abernathy led the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, DC. The nation’s poor Black, Latino, White American and Native American came together from the Mississippi Delta, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Indian Reservations of the great Northwest, the farmlands of the Southwest, and the inner cities of the North under the leadership of Dr. Abernathy to reside on the Mall of the Washington Memorial in Resurrection City. Hoping to bring attention to the plight of the nation's impoverished, he constructed huts in the nation's capital, precipitating a showdown with the police. On June 19 he held a speech at the Lincoln Memorial, in front of tens of thousands of black and white citizens.

The Poor People’s Campaign reflected Abernathy’s deep conviction that “the key to the salvation and redemption of this nation lay in its moral and humane response to the needs of its most oppressed and poverty-stricken citizens.” His aim in the spring of 1968 was to raise the nation’s consciousness on hunger and poverty, which he achieved. The Poor People’s Campaign led to systematic changes in US Federal Policies and Legislation creating a national Food Stamp Program, a free meal program for low income children, assistance programs for the elderly, CEDAR and other work programs, day care and health care programs for low income people across America. On June 19, he held a speech at the Lincoln Memorialmarker, in front of tens of thousands of black and white citizens. June 24, 1968, the Washington, DC Police forced the poor to disband and demolished Resurrection City. Dr. Abernathy was jailed for nearly three weeks for refusing to comply with orders to evacuate.

On the eve of the Apollo 11 launch, June 15, 1969, Abernathy arrived at Cape Canaveral with several hundred members of the poor people to protest spending of government space exploration, while many Americans remained poor. He was met by Thomas O. Paine, the Administrator of NASA, whom he told that in the face of such suffering, space flight represented an inhuman priority and funds should be spent instead to "feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend the sick, and house the homeless." Mr. Paine told Abernathy that the advances in space exploration were child's play compared to the tremendously difficult human problems of the society, and told him that "if we could solve the problems of poverty by not pushing the button to launch men to the moon tomorrow, then we would not push that button." On the day of the launch, Dr. Abernathy led a small group of protesters to the restricted guest viewing area of the space center and chanted, "We are not astronauts, but we are people."

Abernathy fought nonviolently in Charleston, South Carolinamarker for the hospital workers of 1199B in a labor struggle which led to a living wage increase and improved working conditions for thousands of hospital workers.

Abernathy successfully negotiated a peace settlement at the Wounded Knee upraising between the Federal Bureau of Investigationmarker and the Leaders of the American Indian Movement, Russell Means and Dennis Banks.

Abernathy addressed the United Nations in 1971 on World Peace and served as the leader of many peace missions as the President of the World Peace Council, headquarters in Helsinki, Finlandmarker. He was a member of the Board of Directors of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. As President and Chairman of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Foundation, he remained president for nine years following Dr. King’s death in 1968 until his resignation in 1977, when he became President Emeritus until his death in 1990.

In 1977, he ran unsuccessfully for Georgia's 5th Congressional District seat losing to Congressman John Lewis. He founded the nonprofit organization, Foundation for Economic Enterprises Development (FEED), which offered managerial and technical trained creating jobs, income, business and trade opportunities for underemployed and unemployed workers of all races and Ethnicities. Through a grant from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, he built the Ralph David Abernathy Towers, a high rise Senior Citizens and Handicapped housing complex which he donated to his church, West Hunter Street Baptist Church.

In 1979, Abernathy endorsed and traveled around the country supporting Senator Edward M. Kennedy's entire candidacy for the Presidency of the United States. However, he shocked critics a few weeks before the 1980 November election, when he endorse the front runner, Ronald Reagan over the fledgling Presidential Campaign of Jimmy Carter. With an inevitable Republican victory, Dr. Abernathy said that he felt that he had to endorsed Reagan, so that African Americans might eventually gain some respect in that political party. After the disappointing performance of the Reagan Administration on Civil Rights and other areas, Dr. Abernathy withdrew his endorsement of Reagan in 1984, remaining a Democrat until his death.

During his lifetime, Dr. Abernathy was honored with more than 300 awards and citations, including five Honorary Doctorate Degrees. He served as a representative on the National Council for the Aged, the World Commission on Hunger, the National NAACP, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, the American Sociological Society, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, the Atlanta Baptist Ministers Union and on more than forty other organizations. An advocate of the Constitution's First Amendment for Religious Freedom, Dr. Abernathy served as Vice President along with Dr. Robert Grant and co-founded the American Freedom Coalition in 1980.

Abernathy testified before the Congressional Hearings calling for the Extension of the Voting Rights Act, which has and continues to serve as the only legal method to ensure equal and fair voting practices in the Southern States, guaranteeing that everyone born in the United States of America, regardless of race, is entitled to full citizenship and the right to vote.

In the 1980s the Unification Church hired Dr. Abernathy as a spokesperson to protest the newsmedia's use of the term "Moonies", which they compared with the word "Nigger". Abernathy also served as vice president of the Unification Church-affiliated group American Freedom Coalition, and served on two Unification Church boards of directors.

In 1989, Harper Collins published Abernathy’s autobiography, “And The Walls Came Tumbling Down.” It was his final detailed accounting of his life with his dearest friend Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.

Abernathy died at Emory Crawford Long Memorial Hospital, from two blood clots that traveled to his heart and lungs, five weeks after his 64th birthday, the morning of April 17, 1990.

Abernathy Road in southwest Atlanta

Legacy and honors

Abernathy received many awards, most notably honorary degrees from Long Island Universitymarker in New York, Morehouse Collegemarker in Atlanta, Kalamazoo Collegemarker in Michigan, and his Alma Mater, Alabama State University in Montgomery.

Interstate 20 Ralph David Abernathy Freeway, Abernathy Road and Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard of Atlanta were named in his honor.

His son, Ralph David Abernathy, III, is a social activist who heads a community foundation which funds education and health and wellness programs in African American communities, as well as efforts toward prison reform.

Marriage and family

Dr. Abernathy and his wife, Juanita Jones Abernathy had five children. Deceased in 1953, Ralph David Abernathy Jr.; Opera Singer, Juandalynn R. Abernathy of Germany; Actress, Author and Public Speaker, Donzaleigh Abernathy of Los Angeles, CA; Former Georgia State Senator and Member of the State House of Representatives, Rev. Ralph David Abernathy III of Atlanta, GA; and Attorney Kwame Luthuli Abernathy of Atlanta, GA.

Dr. Abernathy is entombed in Lincoln Cemetery in Atlanta, GA.

See also


  1. In David Garrow's book The Walking City – The Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955-1956.
  • {{Garrow, David title=The Walking City New York publisher=Carlson year 1989 ISBN 0-926019-03-1
  • Thesis - "The Natural History of A Social Movement: The Montgomery Improvement Association" by Ralph D. Abernathy

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