Reverend Ralph David Abernathy, a grandson of a slave, became a highly respected pioneer who, alongside Martin Luther King, strove for civil rights for African Americans.
Abernathy was born on 11 March 1926 in Linden Alabama. He was one of William L. Abernathy’s twelve children and the family lived on his 500-acre farm. Well respected, William was the first black man to serve on a grand jury in his county. Ralph attended the Linden Academy, a Baptist school founded by the first Mount Pleasant District Association. Whilst there he led his first demonstration – protesting against the dire state of the college’s science lab.
During World War Two, Ralph Abernathy enlisted in the army. Before the war he had not been aware of the blatant and widespread hostility towards black people and was stunned by the strict black and white segregation. Despite the disadvantage of his skin colour he achieved the rank of Platoon Sergeant; but a bout of rheumatic fever finished his army career. He was given an honourable discharge and a flight back to America.
After the war, Abernathy enrolled at the Alabama State University; where he gained a Science Degree in Mathematics (with honours). Also, he earned a Master of Science Degree in Sociology while building the foundations of the Civil Rights Movement with Martin Luther King, Jr. His thesis, The Natural History of a Social Movement: The Montgomery Improvement Association, was later published in book form entitled The Walking City-the Montgomery Bus Boycott 1955-1956. During his studies Abernathy joined the ministry, delivering his first sermon on Mother’s Day, 1948.
In 1950, he became the Personnel Director at Alabama State University, and later Dean of Men and Professor of Social Studies and Mathematics. At the same time he hosted a radio show, the first black man on Montgomery radio. In 1952, he became the Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church, the largest Baptist church in Montgomery, a position he held for ten years.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott
In accordance with the ‘Jim Crow’ segregation laws, there were black and white sectors on all buses; whites at the front and blacks at the back. Black passengers had to board at the front of the bus to pay for their tickets and then alight, walk to the rear of the bus, and get on again. But on 30 November 1955, forty-two-year-old African-American, Rosa Parks, attempted to do just that: she had paid the fee but the driver left her stranded in the rain. The following morning, 1 December, Parks paid for her ticket and sat on the front seat and refused to move to the back. Her brave stance earned her an arrest and the following day a trial. The charges were: disorderly conduct and violation of a local ordinance. It took thirty minutes to find her guilty and fined $10, plus $4 for court costs.
Rosa Parks was a member of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of the Colored People, founded by WEB Du Bois), Montgomery branch. Abernathy and Martin Luther King immediately organised a boycott of Montgomery’s bus services. Assisted by a Professor of English from Georgia, who made and distributed flyers, they asked the entire black population of Montgomery not use the buses and instead walk to work. Lasting 381 days, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was successful; it had an enormous impact on the bus owners, as 75 per cent of their users were black. As such, losing such a high proportion of their income was a threat to the viability of the bus companies. The people of Montgomery continued to walk to work in the mornings and home in the evenings while the buses sat idly in the depots. Eventually the transit boycott challenging the ‘Jim Crow’ segregation law was successful; bus segregation was ended.
On 10 January 1957 (only days after the end of the boycott), Abernathy’s house and church were both bombed. No one was injured.
The King – Abernathy partnership
The two schoolboys, Abernathy and King, met in Atlanta and remained close friends. The duo spearheaded the non-violent Civil Right Movements in Albany, Birmingham, Chicago, Memphis, Mississippi, Montgomery, Selma, St Augustine, and Washington. For thirteen tempestuous years, from 1955 to 1968, King and Abernathy often journeyed together, shared hotel rooms, jail cells and leisure times. On 4 April 1968, the two men were campaigning in Memphis, Tennessee and as usual were sharing a motel room. King was standing on the second floor balcony when he was shot.
Abernathy was distraught but helped King’s wife and family through their grief. As a co-founder of the Civil Right Movement he took over as president. On 19 June, Abernathy spoke to tens of thousands of black and white Americans at the Lincoln Memorial. He was deeply convinced that he had to continue what they had begun. The two friends’ industriousness without doubt helped to clinch the passage of the mammoth landmarks – the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the abolition of the Jim Crow Segregation Laws.
In 1977, Abernathy unsuccessfully ran as a Democrat for a seat in Georgia. Undaunted, he continued his non-violent battle for the rights of the poor and African Americans. Throughout his life Abernathy received over 300 awards, citations, five honorary doctorates, was the ‘Man of the Year’ in the Atlanta Urban League, and had his name on innumerable plaques in numerous streets across many states.
On 17 April 1990, five weeks after his 64th birthday, Reverend Ralph David Abernathy died following a long illness.