Ralph Abernathy: Civil Rights Leader and Friend to One of America’s Greatest Orators

Written by Reve Fisher

By Ishan Sen

A minister, a reformer and a leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Ralph David Abernathy is best known as the closest friend of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Born on March 11, 1926, his boyhood days were mostly spent on his father’s farm in Alabama. As a student of Linden Academy, Abernathy protested against the inferior quality of science lab till his school was compelled to improve the same. Afterwards, he enrolled at Alabama State University and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics in 1950.

During his sophomore year, Abernathy was elected president of the student council and led several demonstrations protesting the quality of food served at the college cafeteria. In 1948, while still in college, he was ordained a Baptist minister and preached his first sermon on Mother’s Day. He attended Atlanta University in the fall of 1950 and received his Master of Science degree in sociology in 1951.

The same year saw him assume the role of Senior Pastor at the First Baptist Church, the largest African American church in Montgomery. He met Martin Luther King, Jr., who was then a pastor at a local church. The two men eventually became close friends. Together, they founded the Montgomery Improvement Association, and assumed pivotal roles in the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-56.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was formed in 1957 in Atlanta, Georgia, where King was elected as the first president and Abernathy became the secretary treasurer of the organization. For the next decade or so, Abernathy was involved in every civil rights campaign launched by King. After the latter’s assassination in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, Abernathy replaced him as the president of SCLC and continued all of King’s ongoing campaigns.

However, he lacked the charisma of his former partner and many of his campaigns fell through in the following years. He led the SCLC for nine years till 1977 when he was forced to resign over growing tensions regarding the direction of the organization. Later that year, he ran unsuccessfully for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District seat, losing to Congressman Wyche Fowler.

He chronicled his life, work and relationship with King in his controversial autobiography, “And the Walls Came Tumbling Down,”  which was published by Harper Collins in 1989. Abernathy served as a pastor at the West Hunter Avenue Baptist Church in Atlanta till his death on April 17, 1990. At his behest, his tomb has the simple inscription: “I TRIED.”


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Reve Fisher

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