Ralph Abernathy (1926-1990)
Background and Early Career
Ralph David Abernathy was born in Linden, Alabama, on March 11, 1926. The son of a farmer, he served in the army during World War II (1941-45) and afterward enrolled at Alabama State University, in Montgomery, Alabama, graduating with a degree in mathematics in 1950. He was ordained a Baptist minister in 1948. His involvement in political activism began in college, when he led demonstrations protesting the lack of heat and hot water in his dormitory and the dreadful food served in the cafeteria. In 1951 he earned an M.A. in sociology from Atlanta University (later Clark Atlanta University) and then became pastor of the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. While living in Montgomery he formed a close and enduring partnership with Martin Luther King Jr.
King's Torch Is Passed
Abernathy's decade-long tenure as SCLC president was marked by internal tension between factions competing for control of the organization's direction. He was frustrated by the growing dispute between younger, more militant members, who advocated protests and dramatic actions, and older, more conservative members, who favored more traditional measures such as marches. Under Abernathy's leadership the SCLC's fund-raising campaigns were less than successful, which placed the organization on an unstable financial footing. Abernathy resigned in 1977 amid accusations of financial mismanagement, leaving a once substantial and prominent civil rights organization in decline. That same year he ran for a Georgia congressional seat and lost.
After vacating his leadership post in the SCLC, Abernathy resumed his work as a full-time minister in Atlanta. He has received many awards, most notably honorary degrees from Long Island University in New York, Morehouse College in Atlanta, Kalamazoo College in Michigan, and his alma mater, Alabama State University. A major Atlanta highway is named in his honor. His autobiography, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, was published in 1989. He died in Atlanta on April 17, 1990.
Ralph David Abernathy, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: An Autobiography (New York: Harper and Row, 1989).
David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 1955-1968 (New York: Morrow, 1986).
Anthony Lewis, Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment (New York: Random House, 1991).
W. Michael Kirkland, Bainbridge College
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