Ralph Abernathy

A leader of the American Civil Rights Movement, Ralph Abernathy was a minister, and a close associate of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Following King's assassination, Dr. Abernathy took up the leadership of the SCLC Poor People's Campaign and led the March on Washington, D.C. that had been planned for May 1968.

Ralph Abernathy, the grandson of a slave, was born in Linden, Alabama on March 11, 1926. Ralph's father William, started life, the son of a slave and was later a sharecropper. Saving his money and working hard he was able to buy 500 acres of land for his own farm. William Abernathy was also the first African American to vote in his county.

Ralph Abernathy studied sociology at Atlanta University before becoming a pastor of the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. 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.

Abernathy first met Martin Luther King in the early 1950's, when the two were ministers of congregations in Montgomery, Alabama. They became widely known as leading the civil rights movement in the South after the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts in 1955. When Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her seat on a bus to a white man Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy and other black leaders in Montgomery worked tirelessly using non-violent means to change segregation laws.

In 1957 Abernathy, Martin Luther King and Bayard Rustin, formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). King was president and Abernathy became the secretary and treasurer. On an evening in January 1957  Dr. King, Dr. Abernathy and other Ministers were planning the creation of the SCLC in Atlanta, but there were radical whites who wanted to stop them. That same night the Abernathy home and church were bombed, along with Mt. Olive Church, Bell Street Church and the home of Rev. Robert Graetz.  Hearing the news, Dr. King and Dr. Abernathy immediately returned to Montgomery, leaving Coretta Scott King to conduct the first meeting of SCLC. The new organization was committed to using nonviolence in the struggle for civil rights, and SCLC adopted the motto: "Not one hair of one head of one person should be harmed."

Ralph Abernathy and Dr. King's partnership spearheaded successful nonviolent movements in Montgomery, Albany, Birmingham, Mississippi, Washington, Selma, St. Augustine, Chicago and Memphis. Their work helped to secure the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Bill of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the abolition of Jim Crow Segregation Laws in the southern United States.

Believing in his cause, Ralph Abernathy and his family endured bombings, violence, and brutal beatings by southern law officers. He was arrested 44 times in his fight for equality and had to stand by and watch the continual terrorizing and eventual assassination of Dr. King, the murders of colleagues, and the murders of five innocent children in Birmingham. Dr. King and Dr. Abernathy undauntedly and unrelentingly marched the streets of the South proclaiming, “Let my people go.”

For 13 turbulent years, from 1955 until Dr. King’s death on April 4, 1968, Dr. King and Dr. Abernathy journeyed together, every step of the way and were inseparable as best friends, sharing the same hotel rooms, jail cells and podiums, all the way to the end. By tearing down the walls of segregation, discrimination and helping to establish new legislation, Dr. King and Dr. Abernathy were able to break down legal barriers, giving millions of African Americans their voting rights and ending the grossly unfair segregation laws. Their Civil and Human Rights Movement serves as an inspiration and model of America’s principled non violent struggle for freedom, justice and equality.

Click on the links below for detailed information and photos on the Civil Rights leaders in Black history in the United States

The begining - Early Activists

After the Civil War blacks suffered greatly in the South. African Americans became targets for enraged white southerners. Lynchings killed hundreds of blacks every year.

Alabama Leaders

In the spring of 1963 civil rights leaders turned to Birmingham Alabama, calling it the most segregated city in America.

Journalists & Authors

"The civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings if it hadn't been for the news media," said Rep. John Lewis.

Islam Leaders

The Nation of Islam is an African-American religious movement founded in Detroit, Michigan, by Wallace D. Fard Muhammad in July 1930.

Mississippi Leaders

Only 37 years old, Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers was gunned down outside his home in Jackson on June 12, 1963.

Lawyers & Polticians

Living in large inner cities allowed African Americans to be part of a large extended culture. It also gave them a large voting block when they were finally able to vote without harassment.


Don't miss a single page. Find everything you need on our complete sitemap directory.


Listen or read the top speeches from African Americans. Read more


Read about the great African Americans who fought in wars. Read more


African Americans invented many of the things we use today. Read more


Thin jazz, think art, think of great actors and find them here. Read more


Follow the history of Black Americans from slave ships to the presidency. Read more


Olympic winners, MVPS of every sport, and people who broke the color barrier. Read more

Civil Rights Activists

These men and women risked and sometimes lost their life to fight for the cause. Read more


Meet the people who worked to change the system from the inside. Read more