Ralph Abernathy was a Baptist minister who, with Martin Luther King Jr., organized the historical Montgomery bus boycotts. He co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was a major civil rights figure, serving as close adviser to King and later assuming SCLC presidency.
“There will be no quiet or peace in this land until justice and equality cover the United States of America as the water covers the seas.” ~ Ralph D. Abernathy
Ralph David Abernathy Sr. was born on March 11, 1926, in Linden, Alabama, the 10th of 12 offspring born to Louivery Abernathy and William Abernathy, a farmer and deacon. Upon graduating from high school, Abernathy was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II, subsequently leaving his family’s 500-acre farm.
Following his military service, in 1948, Abernathy became an ordained minister while pursuing his education. He earned a mathematics degree from Alabama State College in 1950, and received a master’s degree in sociology from Atlanta University the following year. He then became pastor of the First Baptist Church in Montgomery and dean of students at Alabama State. He also married Juanita Odessa Jones; the two would have four children together.
Close Allies With Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1954, when Martin Luther King Jr. became a minster at nearby church, Ralph D. Abernathy mentored him. The two formed an incredible bond and would become leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1955, the pair founded the Montgomery Improvement Association and organized a yearlong bus boycott. Their actions were triggered by the arrest of Rosa Parks, who had refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. The boycott caught the country’s attention but also brought violence; Abernathy’s home and church were damaged by bomb blasts.
The danger didn’t deter Abernathy. In 1957, he and King helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the most prominent of the civil rights organizations in the south. King was president and Abernathy eventually became vice president. A few years later, Abernathy hosted a rally for the Freedom Riders, black and white activists who traveled by bus to protest segregation in the South.
Later that year, when King took his civil rights efforts to Atlanta, Abernathy followed, working at the West Hunger Street Baptist Church. The two activists continued to organize protests, sit-ins and marches. Abernathy was arrested with King 17 times and was always by King’s side, including when the civil rights leader was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Abernathy worked to keep King’s spirit alive and became president of the SCLC. He also spearheaded the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, which included a march on Washington that led to the creation of the Federal Food Stamps Program.
Death and Legacy
In 1977, Abernathy relinquished his role as SCLC president and ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. After failing to be elected, he focused on his work as a minister and speaker. In 1989, his autobiography And the Walls Came Tumbling Down was published.
Ralph D. Abernathy died on April 17, 1990, in Atlanta, Georgia. He’ll always be remembered as King’s closest confidante and second in command. In fact, King himself said in his last speech, “Ralph David Abernathy is the best friend that I have in the world.”
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