Ralph David Abernathy
Partnership to Freedom
Ralph David Abernathy was an African-American pastor, civil rights leader, and closest associate to Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement that spanned from the 1950s through the 1960s. Abernathy and King were two prominent arms of the struggle against Jim Crow segregation during those years. The movement is commonly seen to have started with the organized boycott of bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama in 1954, and culminated in the signing into law of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Throughout the entire movement these two arms of Abernathy and King were interlocked as both men walked side-by-side past threats, arrests, and the bombings of both of their homes and churches, as well as the homes and churches of other members of the movement leadership. In many ways, “Ralph Abernathy was the unsung hero of the civil rights years”, as once put forward by his longtime colleague Hosea Williams. King is more widely seen as the driving force to the events of those years. However, before the start of their partnership both Abernathy and King had already begun speaking as pastors to the injustices of segregation. When their paths did finally come together in Montgomery, historic civil rights changes were soon to follow. Abernathy writes in his autobiography:
Many people believe that the civil rights movement came together by sheer accident as a result of a confluence of events in the mid-1950s. Certainly chance played a role in the timing of the movement, but the shape in took was in part a result of our conversations during the weeks before we suddenly found ourselves at the center of the Rosa Parks controversy.
Martin provided the philosophic framework for the whole plan and we both insisted that its implementation be completely and militantly nonviolent… Juanita and Coretta also contributed significantly to these plans, which were the product of detailed dialogue. When we spoke of implementing the plans, we were still thinking in terms of years rather than weeks or even months… It all seems so reasonable and yet so remote on those autumn nights when we sat over a bowl of soup or a plate of stew and outlined the future. Then, as we put the final touches on our plans, God intervened with a plan of his own and a more urgent timetable.
A close partnership was formed between the two men and their families when King moved to Montgomery and accepted a pastorate at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in May of 1954. Rosa Parks provided insight on Abernathy’s character:
“E.D. Nixon believed the only African Americans in the city with enough influence to get the boycott moving were the ministers. Nixon contacted Reverend Ralph David Abernathy, the twenty-nine-year-old pastor of the largest black Baptist church in Montgomery, the First Baptist Church. Abernathy had the reputation of giving courageous civil rights sermons. He was fearless in his challenges to segregation. Abernathy immediately embraced the boycott idea and scheduled a meeting with the city’s other African-American ministers at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The pastor of that church was another dynamic young preacher, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. After King joined the movement, the two men telephoned the other ministers”.
The Abernathy and King families were a close-knit group at the beginning of the movement. Meetings were held in living rooms and around kitchen tables in their homes. Juanita Abernathy and Coretta Scott King became secretaries writing notes and delivering them to other community members. Initially messages were delivered in churches and then churches became the meeting halls for the movement.
Abernathy’s daughter, Donzaleigh provided details of those early days:
From the beginning…[Ralph and Martin]… were inseparable. Though both of them had heavy responsibilities as pastors, they tried to meet every day. Because of Jim Crow they could only have dinners at home. So the four of them had dinner every night, with Juanita preparing the meal one evening, Coretta the next. Usually, their conversations would last way past midnight.
Juanita Abernathy provided more insight in a recent interview:
The Abernathy and King families were very close and saw each other socially on a regular basis. Ralph and Martin were inseparable. They were best friends and the newest and youngest ministers in town. Their children grew up together. Both families had their homes bombed. Our children suffered nightmares.
And from King:
From the beginning of the protest Ralph Abernathy was my closest associate and most trusted friend. We prayed together and made important decision together.
Both Abernathy and King found inspiration from similar sources as they formulated their nonviolent strategy toward Jim Crow segregation:
Both men had studied the writings of the American author Henry David Thoreau and the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi. Thoreau… favored a form of protest known as civil disobedience… that people who followed their conscience had a duty to disobey [unjust] laws. Gandhi, who led India to independence in a peaceful revolution… stressed that a protest must be nonviolent if it is to bring about lasting good.
As the Civil Rights Movement evolved, King became the face and the voice of the Movement because he had a gift for giving speeches that energized crowds. Abernathy became the cogs and gears that that put the plans of protest into motion, and passed along specific guidance to the broad base of supporters about adhering to the principles of nonviolence. These plans came forth from the discussions and decisions Abernathy and King made together, and with members of the Montgomery Improvement Association and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which they helped create: “They were ordinary men put in an extraordinary circumstance, and they rose with courage to the occasion.” …All those years, Ralph and Martin were never paid for the working in the movement.
Abernathy was not without a voice of his own. He spoke with a direct and powerful tone. Maya Angelou writes of her experience listening to Abernathy in a Harlem church, waiting to hear King speak:
Ralph Abernathy was introduced next. He moved slowly and quietly toward the podium. He stood a few seconds, looking down at his hands, which rested on top of the desk. His speaking voice was a surprise and his delivery a shock. He didn’t have the fire of Walker or the anger of Shuttlesworth. His message was clear and quick, and in an unnerving way, the most powerful… Rev. Abernathy reminded the audience that only with God could we develop the courage to change the unchangeable. When he moved, ponderously, slowly to his seat, there was a long moment when the audience sat still. Because his words had not been coated with passion or fashioned in eloquent prose, they took longer to swallow.
Donzaleigh Abernathy recounts:
As a child, I watched my father motivate thousands of people to stand up courageously and fight against segregation and oppression. Unrelentingly, he fought for integration with his “closest and dearest” friend, Martin Luther King. They worked as a team and were known in their day as “the civil rights twins.”
Abernathy and King traveled together and coached communities providing support to nonviolent movements in Montgomery, Birmingham, Washington, Selma, and Memphis. Abernathy was then the acting Vice President, Financial Secretary, and Treasurer of the SCLC. King was President of the organization, and named Abernathy to take his place as President in the event of King’s death:
Abernathy had expected he would never have to do this. A successful assassination attempt would take both men’s lives, he had believed because he and King were so often together. And, in fact, Abernathy had been just footsteps away when a bullet claimed Martin Luther King’s life.
In King’s famous last speech the night before his assassination about viewing the “promised land”, he took the time to speak kindly of his closest associate, “I want everybody here to know that Ralph David Abernathy is the closest and dearest friend I have in the world.”
After King’s assassination in 1968 and still grieving from the loss, Abernathy followed through on their planned Poor People’s Campaign which began in Washington D.C. by speaking to thousands at the Lincoln Memorial about the plight of Americans suffering in poverty. Another of the goals for the Poor People’s Campaign …was a prompt ending to the war in Vietnam. [Abernathy] said “The use of armed might by this nation against a peasant people is immoral.” Abernathy continued the campaign for many years to come. This included the construction of “Resurrection City” near the Lincoln Memorial, and protesting the massive expense of government sponsored space exploration at the Apollo 11 launch, July 15, 1969. Abernathy joined forces with Cesar Chavez in support of migrant farmworkers, and negotiated a peace settlement between the American Indian Movement and the FBI at Wounded Knee in 1973.
Martin Luther King Jr. did not live to see the Poor People’s Campaign. It would be futile to try and speculate about what might or might not have happened had he lived. …his dearest friend, Ralph David Abernathy carried the torch of their life’s work and mission together, and successfully led the united, nonviolent, multiracial Poor People’s Campaign.
Ralph David Abernathy life’s work was cut short on April 17, 1990 while in the hospital due to failing health. Many kind words to follow captured Abernathy’s contribution to ending segregation in the South and the restructuring of American society:
Abernathy had performed “a silent labor that was very much needed,” said Andrew Young… when he heard of Abernathy’s death.
“Abernathy was… “a jovial, profound, loving preacher who gave his life in the service of others.
“All of us have a profound sense of loss”, commented Jesse Jackson… “We must judge him on what he meant to our struggle, and he was high up on the honor roll.”
Ralph Abernathy III referred to the story of David slaying the giant Goliath when he spoke about his father to the crowd… “I am the son of a giant-slayer.”
Ralph David Abernathy was born on March 11, 1926 in the quiet rural town of Linden, Alabama. He was christened David, not Ralph, by his parents, who named after the biblical king that slew the giant Goliath. At the age of 12, his sister, Manerva began to call her little brother Ralph David after a college instructor she admired very much. David enlisted in the armed forces in 1944 as “Ralph David Abernathy” and the name has followed him since. Abernathy grew up on a farm that was built up from a small plot to a 500-acre productive spread by his father. Abernathy was insulated from the Depression, as his family was able to produce all of their food, and cotton as a cash crop. Abernathy writes: Everything I learned about the Great Depression was from a college textbook. We didn’t know that people were lining up at soup kitchens in cities all over the country… Even though his grandfather was born a slave and found freedom as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation, Abernathy had little contact with the oppressive of racism associated with Jim Crow segregation. He does recall, however, being warned as a child by his father to not get entangled with white children.
Abernathy served in the U.S. Army at the end of World War II. Although he saw no actual combat, he witnessed its violence, destruction, and devastation. It was a life defining experience:
At first the sight of maimed and bloodied bodies makes me weak and faint. Later, I find it does not affect me physically; but I still feel a sickness at heart. I’m not certain how the rest of the men feel, but I for one am hoping for an immediate surrender and a merciful peace… I have by now concluded that I am committed in principle to a life of nonviolence.
Abernathy attended Alabama State University on the GI Bill, and while in school experienced first-hand the difficulty of registering to vote when forced to take a four-page literacy test, and told to recite the 13th Amendment of the Constitution. As a student, he learned his first lessons in planning protests when he organized efforts to improve housing accommodations and the quality of meals on campus. The college administration conceded on both issues. Abernathy recounts the importance of this first success: This experience taught me a lesson that I filed away but never quite forgot: You can deal with the most awesome authority on an equal basis if the people are on your side.
Although Abernathy was studying mathematics at Alabama State, his interested started to focus more on the scholarly pursuit of theology and the ministry, which he pledged to pursue on the first Mother’s Day following his own mother’s death in 1947. Abernathy graduated with a Bachelor’s degree from Alabama State in 1950, and then quickly obtained a Master’s in sociology, from Atlanta University in 1951. It was during his years as a student in Atlanta that Abernathy first heard Martin Luther King, Jr., who was only a student himself, preach at the Ebenezer Baptist Church.
In 1952, at the age of twenty-six, Abernathy accepted the position of pastor at the historic First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He soon settled down and married Juanita Odessa Jones on August 13, 1952 to whom he had become a close friend with while attending Alabama State. A few years later, Abernathy again met King, who was under consideration for pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. King was offered the position and moved his family to Montgomery. The wheels of destiny were then literally set in motion in Montgomery on December 1, 1955 when the normally courteous and soft-spoken Rosa Parks, tired after a long day of work, and tired of giving in to the humiliation of segregation, was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man. Although not the first person to be arrested for such an act, it was her defiance that sparked the historical Abernathy/King partnership to freedom.
Setting the Stage
Although history looks upon the years from 1954 to 1965 as the civil rights years, the effort to end segregation and bring real freedom to African Americans began, in fact, well before the 1950’s and required the tireless and self-sacrificing efforts of many more than two prominent pastors.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in 1909 in part as a response to the failings of Reconstruction after the end of the Civil War and the subsequent disenfranchisement of freed blacks throughout the South. It operated as the dominant civil right protest organization prior to the civil rights movement. It was a Northern-based, bureaucratic organization founded by a group of black and white intellectuals to specifically fight for black Americans. The black founders, including W E. B. Dubois, were highly educated individuals. The main tactics used by the NAACP was legal action in nature, and highly dependent upon individuals bringing complaints to them that they could then forward to the United States Attorney General. During these years, progress was slow and difficult because the U.S. Justice Department was avoiding enforcement of any of the civil rights statutes brought forward by African Americans. This began to change through the 1940s when prosecutions of lynch mob members occurred for the first time in American history.
No better example of the NAACP legal successes can be found than in the Brown vs. Board of Education case, where the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously determined unconstitutional the State of Kansas statutes that established separate public schools for black and white students. Thurgood Marshall was the lead counsel for the NAACP, who later became the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court. The importance of the Court’s decision was later discussed in one of the early meetings between Abernathy and King:
We talked about the oppression of our people and about the growing belief that a sea of change was taking place. We all agreed that Brown versus Board of Education had altered forever the conditions on which the continuing struggle would be predicated. No longer was the law unambiguously on the side of Jim Crow. It now appeared as if the law was on our side, that the federal government might eventually be pressed into service in our fight for freedom.
The Civil Rights March on Washington of 1963 where over 250,000 people, black and white, from every state in America peacefully gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial was actually envisioned decades earlier by Asa Philip Randolph. As acting president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Randolph proposed its use in 1941 to pressure President Franklin D. Roosevelt to bring an end to racism in the United States Government:
Today we call upon President Roosevelt, a great humanitarian and idealist, to follow in the footsteps of his noble and illustrious predecessor and take the second decisive step in this world and national emergency and free American Negro citizens of the stigma, humiliation and insult of discrimination and Jim-Crowism in Government departments and national defense.
The Federal Government cannot with a clear conscience call upon private industry and labor unions to abolish discrimination based upon race or color as long as it practices discrimination itself against Negro Americans.
Randolph’s influence and participation in the planning of the 1963 March was significant as detailed in Abernathy’s autobiography:
… Randolph had been developing the most concrete plans yet for a major rally in the nation’s capital. He was working on a two-day demonstration; the first day devoted to a march on Capitol Hill; the second day to a mass meeting on the Mall where a number of people would speak – civil rights leaders, sympathetic legislators, perhaps the president himself… Though Philip Randolph was the most important single figure involved in the planning, the leaders of ten organizations were principally responsible for the final shape of the event.
A Grassroots, Mass Action, People’s Movement
As effective as the NAACP was on the legal front in the fight against racism, it had little reach into the American South where the most egregious of civil rights abuses occurred. As the NAACP expanded into the South it naturally tapped into the extensive network of black ministers and churches already in place there.
The NAACP was particularly important in providing opportunities for local leaders [in the South] to acquire organizing skills and develop networks through which resources could be pooled. The NAACP set the stage from which most of the leadership of the modern civil rights movement would emerge.
The power of the churches and its ministers in the South to reach the black masses could be found in its grassroots nature. Ministers typically grew up and lived among the people and a common church culture developed throughout the region as a result. This structure allowed for the efficient transmission of information to parishioners as the civil rights movement took hold. Use of the black churches and their close ties black colleges and universities were also key to the emergence of the leadership against segregation in the South. The churches were central to launch of non-violent protest and massive boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery. As the word spread about what was happening in Montgomery and beyond, more and more African Americans felt inspired to become involved. SCLC members, particularly King and Abernathy traveled and coached communities about how to elicit change.
These efforts inspired many independent protests in cities across the South. This included an effort to integrate the whites only Central High School in Arkansas on the heels of the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education by an courageous group of black students known as “The Little Rock Nine”. Extensive media coverage of the violent confrontations in Montgomery and Birmingham brought forth a stark picture of the racial injustices in the South. These events fostered a sense of crisis throughout the country turning segregation into a national issue.
The involvement of college students and the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s became a significant force in the movement against racism in the South. Students across the South responded in force with lunch counter sit-ins and library sit-ins. In 1960, North Carolina lunch counters remained segregated. Four black students staged a sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter after being refused service even though they displayed shopping receipts from other Woolworth departments.
The news of the sit-in spread throughout the 10 black colleges in the Greensboro area. Within a few days, students from those colleges and the local black churches had organized sit-ins at other segregated lunch counters, and the action spread to cities, primarily in the South. Chain stores - like Woolworth’s – that practiced selective segregation and discrimination were also subject to pickets in New York City and other Northern cities.
In spring 1961, student activism took form in Jackson Mississippi, when students from Tougaloo College held a sit-in at the segregated public library. A few days later white students joined them in the protest march. The example of local activism demonstrates the indigenous character of the civil rights struggle.
The Freedom Rides, where interracial students travelled between states on buses in protest against segregation in interstate transportation were sparked by the sit-ins. Riders had a bus firebombed in Anniston, Alabama, faced a mob attack in Birmingham, and were arrested en masse in Jackson, Mississippi. In response to the injustice and violence the Interstate Commerce Commission banned all segregated seating in interstate vehicles in September 1961.
The stories and individual accounts of the struggles, disappointments, and triumphs of those years are readily available as told by participants in their own words.
Not all African Americans agreed with Abernathy and King, however, regarding the importance of the nonviolent approach to securing social change, and the end of racism. Other movements were underway in the 1960s including the separatist and confrontational approaches of Malcolm X, and later the Black Panthers. Northern urban blacks across the country were not gaining benefit from the fight against racism waged primarily in the South. Frustrated by the brutality of white racists and the slow pace of social change in America, riots erupted in black neighborhoods in many American cities during the summer of 1964. The response from the more radical elements in the civil rights movement was anger and disgust. When Abernathy and King were in jail in Selma during the effort to secure voting rights in the South, Malcolm X took his message there and spoke to blacks at Brown Chapel. Said Malcolm X:
“The white people should thank Dr. King for holding people in check, for there are others who do not believe in these measures”.
When reflecting on the times, Abernathy wrote:
The future belonged either to Christian nonviolence or to Black Power, and Black Power in 1966 meant something akin to civil war… The broken pledge of Chicago became a key arguing point in the rhetoric of Black Power advocates. “That’s all you get from nonviolent approaches: a lot of talk and no action. Force is the only thing the white man understands. So burn, baby, burn!”
For Abernathy and King, the pressures towards violent action came from both white racists and frustrated blacks. There were many reasons to strike back at their oppressors, especially given the murders of many blacks and supportive whites within their communities including Viola Luiza, Medger Evers, and the four young girls, Adie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, killed during the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Church in Birmingham in 1963. Nonetheless, they held true to their core beliefs that nonviolence and civil disobedience were the keys to securing lasting change in American society.
The successful legislation and passage into law of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, came to fruition not only because of the courage, sacrifice, and dedication of two pastors named Abernathy and King though their contributions were irreplaceable. It was also the courage, and sacrifice, and dedication of hundreds of protesters across a century of dissension, and in the end, the desire of an entire nation to realize the promise of the declaration that launched America. Abernathy’s daughter, Donzaleigh, superbly captured this sentiment in 2003:
This story is not just the story of black people. It is equally the story of white people. It is the story of American people fighting for freedom, justice, and equality. Above all, it is the history of America. It is the story of women as well as men. It is the story of everyone in America, as we are all partners to history. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy could not and did not fight the fight alone. Along the way, they gathered together an army of multiracial, integrated soldiers of young, old, rich, poor, black, white, red, yellow, and brown Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Gentiles, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and a few nonbelievers. Together, we fought unrelentingly to make America free.
Catherine Reef, Ralph David Abernathy, 22.
Ralph David Abernathy, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, 129-130.
Anne E. Schraff, Rosa Parks: Tired of Giving In (New Jersey: Enslow Publishers, 2005) 66.
Donzaleigh Abernathy, Partners to History (New York: Crown Publishers, 2003) 17.
Juanita Abernathy interview in Atlanta, GA, January 13, 2012; Mario Chiodo and Francine Agapoff present.
Clayborne Carson, ed. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Warner Books, 1998) 64.
Maya Angelou, The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou (New York: The Modern Library, 2004) 672.
Thurgood Marshall, “The Legal Attack to Secure Civil Rights” speech delivered July 13, 1944 at the NAACP Wartime Conference, in The American Civil Rights Movement, Readings & Interpretations, ed. Raymond D'Angelo (McGraw-Hill/ Dushkin, 2001) 191.
Asa Philip Randolph, “Civil Rghts Can be Secured by Mass Action”, in The American Civil Rights Movement, Readings & Interpretations, 55.
Aldon Morris, “Domination, Church, and the NAACP”, in The American Civil Rights Movement, Readings & Interpretations, 157.
“Student Activism and the Emergence of a Mass Movement, 1960-1965” in The American Civil Rights Movement, Readings & Interpretations, 280-281
Ellen Levine, Freedom’s Children (New York: Puffin Books, 1993).
Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer, Voices of Freedom, An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s (New York: Bantam Books, 1990).