Ralph Abernathy

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Ralph David Abernathy (March 11, 1926 – April 17, 1990) was an American civil rights activist and leader and a close associate of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Following King's assassination, 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.

Early life

Abernathy was born the son of a farmer in Linden, Alabama. After serving in the army during World War II, he enrolled at Alabama State University, in Montgomery, Alabama, graduating with a degree in mathematics in 1950. His involvement in political activism began in college while he was a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, 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 a 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 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr..


Civil rights work

Abernathy, who held the official title of Secretary-Treasurer of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was with Martin Luther King in Memphis, Tennessee when King was assassinated. In fact, they shared Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel the night before. Abernathy introduced King before he made his last public address and King said at the beginning that "Ralph is the best friend I have in the world".

Abernathy assumed the presidency of the SCLC after King's death. Less than a week after the assassination, Abernathy led a march to support striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. In May 1968 he, among others including Jesse Jackson, organized the Poor People's Campaign (PPC) March on Washington, D.C. Hoping to bring attention to the plight of the nation's impoverished, he constructed huts in the nation's capital, precipitating a showdown with the police. The settlement was named "Resurrection City". (Abernathy himself slept in a hotel during the campaign.) On June 19 he held a speech at the Lincoln Memorial, in front of tens of thousands of black and white citizens.

The PPC campaign at Resurrection City had a hard time achieving its objectives and maintaining morale among the residents of the "city." Its demands were seen as unreasonable, and many saw the campaign it as fundamentally challenging the capitalist system of the U.S.. Weeks of rainy weather, and the assassination of Robert Kennedy on June 5th, contributed to a decline in the morale and an increase in civil disorder and crime within the settlement. On June 24, the federal government brought bulldozers in, using force to disband the protesters and demolish Resurrection City. Abernathy was jailed for nearly three weeks for refusing to comply with orders to voluntarily disband the protest.

On June 15, 1969, the eve of the launch of Apollo 11, Abernathy arrived at Cape Canaveral together with several hundred members of the Poor People's Campaign to protest the money being spent on space exploration, while so many people remained poor. He was met by Thomas O. Paine, the administrator of NASA, whom he told that in the face of such suffering, space flight represented an inhuman priority and funds should be spent instead to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend the sick, and house the homeless. Paine told Abernathy that the advances in space exploration were child's play compared to the tremendously difficult human problems of the society, and told him that "if we could solve the problems of poverty by not pushing the button to launch men to the moon tomorrow, then we would not push that button." On the day of the launch, Abernathy led a small group of protesters in the restricted guest viewing area of the space center, chanting, "We are not astronauts, but we are people." The protest, which had originally been planned by Martin Luther King, failed to generate any support for Abernathy's cause.

Abernathy resigned in 1977 to run unsuccessfully for a Georgia congressional seat.

In 1980, Abernathy was the most prominent African American to endorse Ronald Reagan, along with Hosea Williams and Charles Evers. Abernathy later said he was very disappointed with the Reagan administration's civil rights policies, and he did not endorse him for reelection in 1984.

In the 1980s Abernathy co-founded the American Freedom Coalition, with Robert Grant. The AFC received major funding from Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church and works in partnership with The Washington Times, CAUSA, the American Constitution Committee, and other Unification Church related organizations.[1] Abernathy served as Vice President of American Freedom Coalition until his death in 1990.

Legacy and honors

Abernathy received many awards, most notably honorary degrees from Long Island University in New York, Morehouse College in Atlanta, Kalamazoo College, and his alma mater, Alabama State University.

Interstate 20 and Abernathy Road, in Atlanta, are named in his honor.

Marriage and family

Abernathy and his wife, Juanita, had four children. His younger son, Ralph David served as a Georgia State representative. His son Kwame Abernathy studied law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School in Philadelphia, and he graduated in 2000. His youngest daughter, Donzaleigh, is an actress and writer.

Abernathy died on April 17, 1990 in Atlanta. He was entombed in Lincoln Cemetery.

See also


  1. ^ Kim A. Lawton (August 2001). "CT Classic: Unification Church Ties Haunt New Coalition". Christianity Today. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2001/132/36.0.html. Retrieved on 2008-02-12. 

External links

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