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date: 20 October 2017

Abernathy, Ralph David

Abstract and Keywords

Ralph David Abernathy (1926–1980) was a pastor who became president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference after the assassination of Martin Luther King. He was director of personnel, dean of men, and professor of social studies at Alabama State University.

Keywords: civil rights, Montgomery Bus Boycott, Voting Rights Act, Civil Rights Act, Poor People's Campaign, Resurrection City

Ralph David Abernathy, second only to his co-worker, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as champion of the civil rights movement, was born in Linden, Alabama. The grandson of slaves, he was the tenth of 12 children. He was drafted into the U.S. Army and completed the general equivalency diploma on discharge. Dr. Abernathy was a graduate of Alabama State University, where he majored in mathematics. He completed one year of course work at Atlanta University and returned to Alabama State University, where he served as director of personnel, dean of men, and professor of social studies.

Dr. Abernathy was raised in the Baptist Church and announced his call to the ministry at the age of 22. He pastored two churches in Alabama. Dr. Abernathy met Dr. King in 1955 and helped to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957 after the arrest of Rosa Parks. He and Dr. King led the Montgomery Bus Boycott for 381 days during which time his church and his home were bombed, he was wrongfully sued for $3 million, and he was severely beaten. Dr. Abernathy and Dr. King were jailed 44 times as a result of their civil rights activities, and they shared the victories (the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968). It was King and Abernathy, through the SCLC, who ended de jure segregation in the South, thereby changing the course of history.

Having completed a master's degree in sociology at Atlanta University in 1958, Dr. Abernathy assumed the pastorate of the historic West Hunter Street Baptist Church in Atlanta. In 1961 he intensified his efforts in the civil rights movement. Dr. Abernathy was at Dr. King's side when the latter was assassinated on April 4, 1968. He succeeded Dr. King as president of the SCLC and was diligent in working to help poor and downtrodden people. He was responsible for the Poor People's Campaign that culminated in Resurrection City, addressed the United Nations in 1971, and was granted many awards and accolades, including 27 honorary doctoral degrees from some of the nation's most prestigious colleges and universities. In 1989 Harper & Row published Dr. Abernathy's autobiography, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, a detailed account of his life and the nonviolent human and civil rights movement.