Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, led some 5,000 people on a “thank you” march to the White House to express joy at the impending signing of the voting bill. From left, Bishop Paul Moore, Mrs. Walter Fauntroy, Rev. Fauntroy, Dr. King and Rev. Abernathy.
By Sean Yoes
AFRO Senior Reporter
Ralph David Abernathy, the grandson of a slave, ultimately walked side by side along the historic path blazed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and in the process helped change the trajectory of the United States.
Abernathy was born March 11, 1926, the 10th of William and Louivery Abernathy’s 12 children on a 500-acre farm in Linden, Alabama. His father William was a trailblazer himself, the first Black man to cast a vote in Marengo County, Alabama, a foreboding place for Black Americans in the early 20th century. The son of a slave, the elder Abernathy was also the first Black on a grand jury there.
After Ralph graduated from the Linden Academy, a Baptist school in Marengo County, he was enlisted into the United States Army, where he reached the rank of Platoon Sergeant before he was discharged after a bout of rheumatic fever in Europe. After he returned from overseas, Abernathy utilized his benefits from the G.I. Bill an enrolled at Alabama State University.
At Alabama State, Abernathy continued a tradition of protest that he began when at Linden, where he led demonstrations to refurbish the school’s substandard science lab. When he arrived at Alabama State he engaged in more protests, this time to improve the quality of the school’s food (In 1951, Abernathy was named the school’s Dean of Men). During his time at Alabama State, Abernathy was also ordained as a Baptist minister in 1948. The alignment of civil protest and ministry would prove to be a grand foreshadowing of things to come for Abernathy.
After graduating from Alabama State, the young preacher moved on to pursue graduate studies at Atlanta University. And it was during that time he was awe-inspired and “burning with envy,” he would admit later, when he first heard another young minister named Martin Luther King Jr. preach at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Abernathy introduced himself to the younger King, became his mentor and best friend almost immediately. From that point the two young men were essentially inseparable as they both grew in ministry and were thrust into the eye of the historical hurricane that was the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South.
The “Freedom Dinner” program of at the sixth annual session of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Birmingham. From left, Rev. and Mrs. Ralph Abernathy, the Brooklyn Dodger’s latest edition Jackie Robinson, Rev. and Mrs. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. L. Shuttlesworth.
By 1952, the 26-year old Abernathy was named pastor of Montgomery, Alabama’s First Baptist Church, the largest Black church in the city. He was active in that city’s branch of the NAACP and was also chair of the State Sunday School and Baptist Training Union Congress. In that capacity he was part of a committee on the Brown v. Board of Education ruling (the case was argued Dec. 9, 1952). The importance of that committee increased as the Supreme Court moved towards the landmark decision in May 1954.
But, by 1955, the confluence of events in Montgomery on Dec. 1 of that year would thrust Abernathy, King, a seamstress named Rosa Parks and the expanding fight against Jim Crow into the international spotlight.
When Parks, who was also secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery public bus to a White man, her act of civil disobedience launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. King became the leader of the Movement and Abernathy was his armor bearer.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott was facilitated by an organization called the Montgomery Improvement Association, or MIA (the name Abernathy pushed, he would lead the organization in 1960) and it ended successfully one year later in December 1956. In 1957, after Abernathy’s church and home were bombed, he, King and other Black leaders formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). King was the new organization’s president and Abernathy the financial secretary-treasurer. The group served as a foundation for the Movement that engineered several landmark civil rights and human rights victories for Black people and other disenfranchised Americans. There was the seminal 1963 March on Washington; the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and there stood King, and his closest confidant, Abernathy always at the eye of the storm.
On April 3, 1968, it was Abernathy of course who introduced King before he made his prophetic, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn. The next day on April 4, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Abernathy had allegedly stepped inside the room he and King shared to grab some cologne, when the gunshots that took his best friend’s life rang out.
Abernathy went on to provide leadership in the Movement after King’s death most notably as president of SCLC. And there were other endeavors and fights for civil and human rights that Abernathy spearheaded prior to his death in 1990 at age 64. But, ultimately it was Abernathy who was King’s rock and what Dr. King did for our nation and the world may not have been possible without his best friend and counselor by his side virtually every step of the way.
“As I listened to Ralph Abernathy and his eloquent and generous introduction and then thought about myself, I wondered who he was talking about,” said King at the beginning of his “Mountaintop” speech in Memphis. “It’s always good to have your closest friend and associate to say something good about you, and Ralph Abernathy is the best friend that I have in the world.”