Bob Fitch photography archive, © Stanford University Libraries
As Martin Luther King’s closest friend and advisor, Ralph Abernathy became a central figure in the civil rights struggle during the Montgomery bus boycott. “Abernathy infused his audiences with new life and ardor. The people loved and respected him as a symbol of courage and strength,” King wrote in Stride Toward Freedom (73–74).
Abernathy was born on 11 March 1926 to William L. and Louivery Bell Abernathy of Linden, Alabama. His father, the son of a slave, supported his family of 12 as a farmer while serving as deacon of the local Baptist church.
Abernathy graduated from Linden Academy and then served overseas with the United States Army toward the end of World War II. He was ordained as a Baptist minister in 1948, and two years later he received a BS in mathematics at Alabama State College in Montgomery. He later earned an MA in sociology from Atlanta University (1958).
While a graduate student at Atlanta University, Abernathy heard King preach at Ebenezer Baptist Church. In his autobiography, Abernathy recalled “burning with envy” at King’s “learning and confidence,” and he immediately saw King as a “man with a special gift from God” (Abernathy, 89). Abernathy introduced himself to King that day and their friendship began.
In 1952 Abernathy became pastor of Montgomery’s First Baptist Church. He was active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and chaired the State Sunday School and Baptist Training Union Congress’ committee on the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. He issued a report urging ministers to fight against segregation, writing, “Our business as Christians is to get rid of a system that creates bad men” (Papers 2:35).
Shortly after the arrest of Rosa Parks on 1 December 1955, E. D. Nixon contacted Abernathy to discuss the idea of a bus boycott. Abernathy, King, and other community leaders met to create a new organization to guide the protest movement. At Abernathy’s suggestion, the new organization was called the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA).
The different styles of Abernathy and King combined to create an effective and inspiring message at the boycott’s weekly mass meetings. While King emphasized the philosophical implications of nonviolence and the movement, Abernathy helped energize the people into positive action. “Now,” he would tell the audience following King’s address, “Let me tell you what that means for tomorrow morning” (Raines, 54).
In January 1957, shortly after Abernathy’s home and church were bombed, Abernathy joined with King and African American leaders to form the organization that was eventually called the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The organization was designed to support the movement to peacefully implement the Supreme Court’s decision outlawing bus segregation by coordinating the action of local protest groups throughout the South. King was elected president of SCLC, and Abernathy became financial secretary-treasurer.
In November 1959, King announced to his Dexter Avenue Baptist Church congregation that he would be moving to Atlanta to be closer to SCLC headquarters. In January 1960, King officially announced Abernathy as the new president of the MIA: “[Abernathy] has already proven his ability as a leader.… and I predict that under his leadership, Montgomery will grow to higher heights and new and creative things will be done” (Papers 5:354).
Abernathy struggled with meeting the commitments of the MIA and his ministry in Montgomery and SCLC in Atlanta. King helped remedy the problem by recommending that West Hunter Baptist Church in Atlanta hire Abernathy in late 1960. King informed a member of the church, “Ralph is a dynamic and able preacher, an exceptionally good administrator and organizer, and a great community leader. I am sure that he could give to West Hunter a type of leadership that would both double its membership and its spiritual impact in the community” (Papers 5:581). Abernathy accepted the position and moved to Atlanta in 1961.
King and Abernathy provided a great deal of support to one another. The two were jailed together 17 times. Abernathy recalled that their time in jail together allowed them to “make plans and draw strength from one another” (Abernathy, 254). At King’s request, Abernathy became vice-president of SCLC, because King knew that should he die, Abernathy would be able to lead the organization.
After King’s assassination in 1968, Abernathy became SCLC’s president. To prepare for the challenges ahead, he fasted for seven days and nights, telling the New York Post that he “needed to pray and fast for strength that I might carry on as he requested, and as the board of directors of SCLC unanimously requested, in nonviolence. I want to hold no ill will in my heart toward the assassin or anyone else for taking the life of my dearest friend, closer to me than a blood brother” (Michaelson, “On the Other Side”).
Abernathy followed through with the march that King had planned to lead in support of the Memphis sanitation workers. He also continued efforts to organize the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C., the last major movement of SCLC. Yet, despite Abernathy’s commitment to SCLC, the organization never found the same kind of success it had under King’s leadership. After resigning his position in SCLC in 1977, Abernathy made an unsuccessful bid for Congress. He remained pastor of West Hunter Baptist Church and formed the Foundation for Economic Enterprises Development, an organization designed to improve black economic opportunities.
Abernathy, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, 1989.
Introduction, in Papers 2:35.
King, Address Delivered during “A Salute to Dr. and Mrs. Martin Luther King” at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, 31 January 1960, in Papers 5:351–357.
King, Stride Toward Freedom, 1958.
King to Samuel L. Spear, 16 December 1960, in Papers 5:581–582.
Judy Michaelson, “On the Other Side of the Mountain,” New York Post, 13 April 1968.
Raines, My Soul Is Rested, 1983.