Ralph David Abernathy was born in Lindon, Alabama, on 11th March, 1926. The son of a farmer, Abernathy was ordained as a Baptist minister in 1948.
Abernathy studied sociology at Atlanta University before becoming a pastor of the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. In Montgomery, like most towns in the Deep South, buses were segregated. On 1st December, 1955, Rosa Parks, a middle-aged tailor's assistant, who was tired after a hard day's work, refused to give up her seat to a white man.
After her arrest, Abernathy and his friend, Martin Luther King, organized protests against bus segregation. It was decided that black people in Montgomery would refuse to use the buses until passengers were completely integrated. King was arrested and his house was fire-bombed. Others involved in the Montgomery Bus Boycott also suffered from harassment and intimidation, but the protest continued.
For thirteen months the 17,000 black people in Montgomery walked to work or obtained lifts from the small car-owning black population of the city. Eventually, the loss of revenue and a decision by the Supreme Court forced the Montgomery Bus Company to accept integration. and the boycott came to an end on 20th December, 1956.
In 1957 Abernathy, Martin Luther King and Bayard Rustin, formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). King was president and Abernathy became the secretary-treasurer. The new organisation 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." Over the next few years Abernathy was arrested nineteen times.
Abernathy worked closely with Martin Luther King until his assassination in 1968. After King's death Abernathy became the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
He directed the Poor People's March in Washington (May, 1968), helped organize the Atlanta sanitation workers' strike (1968) and the Charleston hospital workers' strike (1969).
In 1977 Abernathy resigned from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and ran unsuccessfully for the Georgia congressional seat. His autobiography, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, was published in 1989. Ralph David Abernathy died in Atlanta on 17th April, 1990.
(1) Ralph Abernathy, speech given at the Commemoration service for Martin Luther King (15th January, 1969)
Many people thought he was out of his mind when he led an army, not armed with guns or bricks or stones, 50,000 strong in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, and said to his followers: "Love your enemies, pray for them that curse and despitefully use you." Some of us may have wondered about him when he led us without physical weapons in the battles of Albany, Georgia; St. Augustine, Florida; and Danville, Virginia. And we knew something must have been wrong with him when defenseless we stood before Bull Connor in Birmingham facing vicious and hungry dogs, fire hoses and brutal policemen.
He was the redeemer of the soul of America. He taught the nation that "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth," if followed to its ultimate conclusion, would only end in a totally blind and toothless society. He discovered that the most potent force for revolution and reform in America is nonviolence. He knew, as the eminent historian Arnold Toynbee has written, that if America is saved, it will be through the black man who can inject new dimensions of non-violence into the veins of our civilization.