- NAME: Ralph D. Abernathy
- OCCUPATION: Civil Rights Activist, Pastor
- BIRTH DATE: March 11, 1926
- DEATH DATE: April 17, 1990
- EDUCATION: Alabama State University, Atlanta University
- PLACE OF BIRTH: Linden, Alabama
- PLACE OF DEATH: Atlanta, Georgia
- AKA: Ralph David Abernathy
- Full Name: Ralph David Abernathy Sr.
- AKA: Ralph Abernathy
- AKA: Ralph D. Abernathy Sr.
- AKA: Ralph D. Abernathy
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Ralph D. Abernathy was a Baptist minister who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was a close adviser to Martin Luther King Jr.
Montgomery Bus Boycott (3:51)
Bloody Sunday (4:04)
For 382 days, almost the entire African-American population of Montgomery, Alabama, including leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, refused to ride on segregated buses, a turning point in the American civil rights movement.
On March 7, 1965 around 600 people crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in an attempt to begin the Selma to Montgomery march. State troopers violently attacked the peaceful demonstrators in an attempt to stop the march for voting rights.
On Sunday, March 21, 1965, nearly 8,000 people began the five-day march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights.
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Born on March 11, 1926, in Linden, Alabama, Ralph D. Abernathy was a Baptist minister who, with Martin Luther King Jr., organized the historical Montgomery bus boycotts. He co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was a major civil rights figure, serving as close adviser to King and later assuming SCLC presidency. Later returning to the ministry, Abernathy died on April 17, 1990, in Atlanta, Georgia.
"There will be no quiet or peace in this land until justice and equality cover the United States of America as the water covers the seas."
"Ralph David Abernathy is the best friend that I have in the world."
Ralph David Abernathy Sr. was born on March 11, 1926, in Linden, Alabama, the 10th of 12 offspring born to Louivery Abernathy and William Abernathy, a farmer and deacon. Upon graduating from high school, Abernathy was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II, subsequently leaving his family's 500-acre farm.
Following his military service, in 1948, Abernathy became an ordained minister while pursuing his education. He earned a mathematics degree from Alabama State College in 1950, and received a master's degree in sociology from Atlanta University the following year. He then became pastor of the First Baptist Church in Montgomery and dean of students at Alabama State. He also married Juanita Odessa Jones; the two would have four children together.
In 1954, when Martin Luther King Jr. became a minster at nearby church, Ralph D. Abernathy mentored him. The two formed an incredible bond and would become leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1955, the pair founded the Montgomery Improvement Association and organized a yearlong bus boycott. Their actions were triggered by the arrest of Rosa Parks, who had refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. The boycott caught the country's attention but also brought violence; Abernathy's home and church were damaged by bomb blasts.
The danger didn't deter Abernathy. In 1957, he and King helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the most prominent of the civil rights organizations in the south. King was president and Abernathy eventually became vice president. A few years later, Abernathy hosted a rally for the Freedom Riders, black and white activists who traveled by bus to protest segregation in the South.
Later that year, when King took his civil rights efforts to Atlanta, Abernathy followed, working at the West Hunger Street Baptist Church. The two activists continued to organize protests, sit-ins and marches. Abernathy was arrested with King 17 times and was always by King's side, including when the civil rights leader was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Abernathy worked to keep King's spirit alive and became president of the SCLC. He also spearheaded the Poor People's Campaign of 1968, which included a march on Washington that led to the creation of the Federal Food Stamps Program.
In 1977, Abernathy relinquished his role as SCLC president and ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. After failing to be elected, he focused on his work as a minister and speaker. In 1989, his autobiography And the Walls Came Tumbling Down was published.
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African-Americans have a long history of activism in America, from fighting for the right to vote to pushing for integrated public spaces. Activists like Stokely Carmichael organized freedom rides, James Meredith fought to integrate blacks and whites at the University of Mississippi, and Rosa Parks instigated the Montgomery Bus Boycott. These protests were often legal and nonviolent, and made a powerful impact on civil rights in the United States. With the help of activists like these—and many others—the country slowly worked to acknowledge the basic rights and contributions of African-Americans. Activists outisde of the U.S. include Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, who have fought against apartheid in South Africa. Learn more about the many black activists who fought against the odds in order to achieve equality.
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