Civil rights pioneer Ralph Abernathy, known as Martin Luther King's right hand man, was born 85 years ago today:
At age 26, Abernathy became full-time minister at the First Baptist Church, Montgomery’s largest black congregation. Three years later, a man he’d met while at school in Atlanta became minister at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The two soon became good friends. That man’s name was Martin Luther King Jr.
The turning point in Abernathy’s life – and indeed, a turning point for life in America – came on December 1, 1955 when a black woman named Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus to make way for white riders. She was a coworker of Abernathy’s at the NAACP, and her arrest led King and Abernathy to form the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) in order to organize a boycott protesting Montgomery’s policy of segregated busing.
Three quarters of the city’s bus patrons were black, and the well-organized boycott had an immediate impact. When King was arrested and given a sentence of 386 days in jail, it brought national attention to the protest. The boycott would last over a year, until December 1956, when a federal ruling found bus segregation to be unconstitutional. Angry whites responded by firebombing Abernathy’s home and church, as well as those of King.
The boycott made Martin Luther King Jr. a nationally known figure, his impassioned speeches turning him into the face of the Civil Rights Movement while Abernathy remained largely in the background. The two men formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, with the aim of taking what they had learned in Montgomery and spreading organized, nonviolent civil rights protests throughout the South.
During the next thirteen years, King's and Abernathy’s tireless leadership brought the struggle for civil rights to Albany, Birmingham, Mississippi, Washington, Selma, St. Augustine, Chicago and Memphis as they helped spearhead marches, sit-ins, and other non-violent actions aimed at winning equal rights for African Americans. Abernathy was with King when he delivered the famous “I Have a Dream” speech during the August 28, 1963 March on Washington that helped gain passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965).