Abernathy, Ralph David

(redirected from Ralph Abernathy)
Also found in: Encyclopedia, Wikipedia.

Abernathy, Ralph David

In the long battle for Civil Rights, few leaders have had as an important a role as Ralph David Abernathy. From the late 1950s until 1968, Abernathy was the right-hand man of martin luther king jr. Together in 1957 they founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the organization chiefly responsible for the nonviolent protest movement whose gains over the next decade included major legal and social reforms for black Americans. Abernathy often shared a place next to King in meetings, marches, and jail, yet despite his considerable contributions to the Civil Rights Movement, he labored largely in King's shadow. Later becoming SCLC president, he watched the transformation of the movement as his influence weakened and his politics changed, until controversy ultimately divided him from its mainstream.

Born on March 11, 1926, in Marengo County, Alabama, Abernathy was the grandson of a slave. His family members were successful farmers, and his father's leadership in the county's black community inspired him. Upon graduating from Linden Academy, he served in the army in World War II. He was ordained as a Baptist minister in 1948. He earned a B.A. in mathematics from Alabama State College in 1950, an M.A. in sociology from Atlanta University in 1951, and later a law degree from Allen University in 1960.

The defining moment in Abernathy's life was meeting King. As a student in Atlanta, he had heard King preach in church. From there, they began a friendship that would shape both men's futures. In 1955, while both were pastors in Montgomery, Alabama, they began the first of many local protest actions against racial discrimination. They organized a boycott of city buses by black passengers that led to the successful desegregation of local bus lines one year later. To build on this triumph, the pastors called a meeting of black leaders from ten southern states in January 1957 at an Atlanta church. This meeting marked the founding of the SCLC, which was devoted to the goal of furthering civil rights throughout the south. King was appointed the group's president, Abernathy its secretary-treasurer. The civil rights movement had begun.

Although the SCLC had committed itself to nonviolent protest, the forces they opposed were far from gun-shy. Segregationists bombed Abernathy's home and church. As opposition from individuals as well as government and law enforcement mounted, Abernathy continued to stress nonviolence. He said, "violence is the weapon of the weak and nonviolence is the weapon of the strong. It's the job of the state troopers to use mace on us. It's our job to keep marching. It's their job to put us in jail. It's our job to be in jail."

"I don't know what the future may hold, but I know who holds the future."
—Ralph Abernathy

For nearly a decade, this philosophy was a clarion call answered by thousands. Through sit-down strikes, marches, arrests and jailings, and frequently at great personal danger, King and Abernathy led a mass of nonviolent protesters across the south, working together to devise strategy and put it into action. The enactment of federal civil rights legislation in 1964 marked a major success. But tragedy followed with King's assassination in May 1968, after which Abernathy replaced him as SCLC president. He now added a new aggressiveness to the group's goals, notably organizing a week-long occupation of Potomac Park in Washington, D.C., by five thousand impoverished tent-dwellers in what was called the Poor People's Campaign. This effort to dramatize poverty was quickly crushed by federal law enforcement.

By the end of the 1960s, Abernathy's influence was in decline. The civil rights movement had splintered as younger, more militant members gravitated toward groups such as the black panthers and the Committee on Racial Equality (CORE). In 1977, Abernathy was forced from leadership of the SCLC amid a feud with King's widow, Coretta Scott King, and made an unsuccessful bid for Congress. In 1980, he supported the presidential campaign of conservative Republican ronald reagan, which further divided him from former friends and associates. References to Martin Luther King Jr.'s marital infidelities in Abernathy's 1989 memoir And the Walls Came Tumbling Down provoked more criticism. Politically and personally isolated, Abernathy died one year later of a heart attack on April 17, 1990, at the age of 64. In death, however, the criticism faded and was replaced by praise for his contributions to civil rights.


Civil Rights Movement; King, Martin Luther, Jr.; Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
King, Ralph Abernathy was one of those he inspired and who knew how to make the cause actionable and tangible.
Determined to serve the forty-five day jail sentence rather than pay the fine, King would later say that after spending just two days in jail, he and Ralph Abernathy were "tricked out of jail," when an anonymous person reportedly paid their bail (39, 39n, 510n, 575, 575n18).
Working on Selma gave Domingo a chance to view some civil rights giants, including Diane Nash and Ralph Abernathy, as human-sized.
(21.) Ralph Abernathy, Records of the Executive Director and Treasurer, October 6, 1962, Box 34 folder 6, Subgroup II, series III, SCLC Papers.
Ralph Abernathy once preached a sermon to Hoover by means of an electronic listening device--in common parlance, a "bug"--planted in the preacher's pulpit.
As I listened to Ralph Abernathy in his eloquent and generous introduction and then thought about myself, I wondered who he was talking about.
From Ralph Abernathy through the women's liberation movement, the encyclopedia covers key political leaders, rebels, and martyrs, as well as events, organizations, scandals, movements, and flashpoints of the Kennedy era, illustrated with b&w historical photos on most pages.
A person whose house had been bombed, who had been beaten severely, and jailed dozens of times, who Bull Connor wished had been "carried away in a hearse," one of the leading lights of the Birmingham freedom struggle, and who founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, along with MLK Jr and Ralph Abernathy, succumbed to health issues.
When I saw Barack Obama, I thought of the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome" and Sam Cooke's song "A Change is Gonna Come." I thought of civil rights heroes like John Lewis, Robert James, James Forman, Stokley Carmichael, James Farmer, James Bevel, Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy and many more who were subjected to unbearable psychological pressure and physical violence in their journey to demand African-American civil rights.
And his faithful deputy, Ralph Abernathy. And Bayard Rustin who organized the Great March on Washington in 1963 that roused American public opinion to push for the landmark Civil Rights Act that abolished Southern segregation.
Another friend, Ralph Abernathy, who was in the motel room, rushed out onto the balcony, saw King lying there with a gaping wound in the head and said, 'Martin, Martin, this is Ralph.
Woodside Lyndon Baines Johnson John Cullum Coretta Scott King Rachel Leslie James Bevel Jimoun Cole Ralph Abernathy Bryan Hicks With: Jonathan Hogan, Geddeth Smith, Harold Surratt, Steve Routman, James Miles, Chad Carstarphen.