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.