Born: March 11, 1926
Died: April 30, 1990
African American civil rights activist
Civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy was the best friend and close assistant of Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968). He followed King as the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The organization used nonviolent means to fight for civil rights for African Americans.
Ralph David Abernathy, one of twelve children, was born in Linden, Alabama, on March 11, 1926. His father, William, the son of a slave, first supported his family as a sharecropper (a farmer who pays some of his crops as rent to the land's owner). In time William Abernathy saved enough money to buy five hundred acres of his own and built a prosperous farm. William Abernathy eventually emerged as one of the leading African Americans in his county. William Abernathy became the county's first African American to vote and the first to serve on the grand jury (a jury that decides whether or not evidence supports a formal charge against a person for a crime). William Abernathy also served as a deacon (a nonclergy church member) in his church.
Ralph Abernathy went to Alabama State University and graduated with a degree in mathematics in 1950. He later earned a master's degree in sociology from Atlanta University in 1951. During this time he also worked as the first African American disc jockey at a white Montgomery, Alabama, radio station. While attending college he was elected president of the student council and led successful protests that called for better cafeteria conditions and better living quarters for students. This experience was the beginning of a career leading protests and working to improve the lives of others.
From an early age Ralph Abernathy wanted to become a preacher and was encouraged by his mother to pursue his ambition. As he later recalled, he had noticed that the preacher was always the person who was most admired in his community. Before finishing college Abernathy became a Baptist minister. After completing his education he served as minister at the Eastern Star Baptist church in Demopolis, Alabama, near his home town of Linden. At age twenty-six Abernathy became a full-time minister at the First Baptist Church in Montgomery. Martin Luther King Jr. began preaching at another of Montgomery's leading African American churches, Dexter Avenue Baptist, three years later. During this time King and Abernathy became close friends.
In 1955 an African American woman from Montgomery named Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat so that a white passenger could sit down. She was arrested for this action and was later fined. This event began an important historic phase of the civil rights movement. Local ministers and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began a boycott of the city buses to end segregation. At the time, the buses in Montgomery were segregated (people were required by law to sit in separate sections based on their race). Parks had been sitting in one of the front seats, which was in the "white" section. African Americans were required by law to give up their seats to white riders if other seats were not available. The ministers formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) to coordinate the boycott and voted Martin Luther King Jr. its president.
The MIA convinced African American cab drivers to take African American workers to their jobs for a ten-cent fare. This made it more affordable for African Americans to avoid riding the buses. After the city government declared the ten-cent cab rides illegal, people with cars formed car pools so that the boycotters would not have to return to the buses. After 381 days the boycott ended with the buses completely desegregated. The boycotters' victory over bus segregation was enforced by a United States district court.
During 1956 Abernathy and King had been in and out of jail and court as a result of their efforts to end the practice of separating people based on their race on buses. Toward the end of the bus boycott on January 10, 1957, Abernathy's home and church were bombed. By the time the boycott was over, it had attracted national and international attention. Televised reports of the MIA's activities inspired African American civil rights protesters all over the South.
King and Abernathy's work together in the MIA was the beginning of years of partnership and friendship between them. Their friendship, as well as their joint efforts in the civil rights struggle, lasted until King's assassination in 1968. Soon after the bus boycott, they met with other African American clergymen in Atlanta, Georgia, to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The goal of the SCLC was to press for civil rights in all areas of life. King was elected president and Abernathy was named secretary-treasurer. The group began to plan for an organized, nonviolent civil rights movement throughout the South. Their aim was to end segregation and to push for more effective federal civil rights laws.
In the early 1960s the civil rights movement began to intensify. Students staged "sit-ins" by sitting in the "whites only" sections of lunch counters. Other nonviolent demonstrations and efforts to desegregate interstate buses and bus depots also continued. During this time Abernathy moved to Atlanta to become the pastor of West Hunter Baptist Church. In Atlanta, he would be able to work more closely with the SCLC and King, who was living in the city.
In the spring of 1963 SCLC leaders began to plan their efforts to desegregate facilities in Birmingham, Alabama. Publicity (of events shown on television) about the rough treatment of African American demonstrators directed the eyes of the world to that city's civil rights protest. Abernathy and King went to prison, while more than three thousand other African Americans in the city also endured periods of time in jail while working for equal rights. The Birmingham demonstrations were successful, and the demands for desegregation of public facilities were agreed upon. After the Birmingham demonstrations, desegregation programs began in over 250 southern cities. Thousands of schools, parks, pools, restaurants, and hotels were opened to all people, regardless of their race.
The success of the Birmingham demonstration also encouraged President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) to send a civil rights bill to Congress. In order to stress the need for this bill, the leaders of all of the nation's major civil rights organizations agreed to participate in a massive demonstration in Washington, D.C. On August 28, 1963, this "March on Washington" attracted over 250,000 African American and white demonstrators from all over the United States. By the next summer the Civil Rights Act, which banned discrimination (treating people unequally because of their differences) based on race, color, religion, or national origin, had been signed into law. In 1965 the Voting Rights Act, which banned discrimination in voting, was passed.
On April 4, 1968, King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Abernathy was named the new leader of the SCLC. His first project was to complete King's plan to hold a Poor People's Campaign in Washington during which poor whites, African Americans, and Native Americans would present their problems to President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973) and the Congress. As a result of these protests, Abernathy once again found himself in jail. This time he was charged with unlawful assembly (an unlawful gathering of people for an illegal purpose). After the Poor People's Campaign, Abernathy continued to lead the SCLC, but the organization did not regain the popularity it had held under King's leadership.
Abernathy resigned from the SCLC in 1977. Later, he formed an organization that was designed to help train African Americans for better economic opportunities. He continued to serve as a minister and as a lecturer throughout the United States. In 1989 Abernathy published his autobiography, called And the Walls Come Tumbling Down (Harper, 1989). Abernathy died of a heart attack on April 30, 1990, in Atlanta.
Abernathy, Ralph. And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: An Autobiography. New York: Harper & Row, 1991.
Oates, Stephen. Let the Trumpet Sound. New York: Harper & Row, 1982.
Reef, Catherine M. Ralph David Abernathy (People in Focus Book). Parsippany, NJ: Dillon Press, 1995.