Ralph Abernathy: Advisor and Confidante to Martin Luther King Jr.

Ralph Abernathy in Miami, 1968. Santi Visali/Getty Images

When Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” on April 3, 1968, he said, “Ralph David Abernathy is the best friend that I have in the world.”

Ralph Abernathy was a Baptist minister who worked intimately with King during the civil rights movement. Although Abernathy's work in the civil rights movement is not as well known as King's endeavors, his work as an organizer was essential to pushing the civil rights movement forward.


Early Life and Education

Ralph David Abernathy was born in Linden Ala.,  on March 11, 1926. Most of Abernathy’s childhood was spent on his father’s farm. He joined the army in 1941 and served in World War II.

When Abernathy’s service ended, he pursued a degree in mathematics from Alabama State College, graduating in 1950. While a student, Abernathy took on two roles that would remain constant throughout his life. First, he became involved in civil protests and was soon leading various protests on campus. Second, he became a Baptist preacher in 1948.

Three years later,  Abernathy earned a master’s degree from Atlanta University.

Pastor, Civil Rights Leader, and Confidante to MLK

In 1951, Abernathy was appointed pastor of the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala.

Like most southern towns in the early 1950s, Montgomery was filled with racial strife. African-Americans could not vote because of stringent state laws. There were segregated public facilities, and racism was rife. To combat these injustices, African-Americans organized strong local branches of the NAACP. Septima Clarke developed citizenship schools that would train and educate African-Americans to use civil disobedience to fight against southern racism and injustice. Vernon Johns, who had been the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church before King, had also been active in combating racism and discrimination--he’d supported young African-American women who had been assaulted by white men to press charges and also refused to take a seat in the back of a segregated bus.

Within four years, Rosa Parks, a member of the local NAACP and graduate of  Clarke’s Highland Schools refused to sit at the back of a segregated public bus. Her actions put Abernathy and King in a position to lead African-Americans in Montgomery. King’s congregation, already encouraged to participate in civil disobedience was ready to lead the charge.  Within days of Parks’ actions, King and Abernathy established the Montgomery Improvement Association, which would coordinate a boycott of the city’s transportation system. As a result, Abernathy’s home and church were bombed by white residents of Montgomery. Abernathy would not end his work as a pastor or civil rights activist. The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted 381 days and ended with integrated public transportation.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott helped Abernathy and King forge a friendship and a working relationship. The men would work on every civil rights campaign together until King’s assassination in 1968.

By 1957, Abernathy, King, and other African-American southern ministers established the SCLC. Based out of Atlanta, Abernathy was elected secretary-treasurer of the SCLC.

Four years later, Abernathy was appointed as pastor of the West Hunter Street Baptist Church in Atlanta. Abernathy used this opportunity to lead the Albany Movement with King.

In 1968, Abernathy was appointed the president of SCLC after King’s assassination. Abernathy continued to lead the sanitation workers to strike in Memphis. By the Summer of 1968, Abernathy was leading demonstrations in Washington D.C. for the Poor People’s Campaign. As a result of demonstrations in Washington DC with the Poor People’s Campaign, the Federal Food Stamps Program was established.

The following year, Abernathy was working with men on the Charleston Sanitation Worker’s Strike.

Although Abernathy lacked the charisma and oratory skills of King, he worked fervently to keep the civil rights movement relevant in the United States. The mood of the United States was changing, and the civil rights movement was also in transition.

Abernathy continued to serve the SCLC until 1977. Abernathy returned to his position at West Hunter Avenue Baptist Church. In 1989, Abernathy published his autobiography, The Walls Came Tumbling Down.

Personal Life

Abernathy married Juanita Odessa Jones in 1952. The couple had four children together. Abernathy died of a heart attack on April 17, 1990, in Atlanta.

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Lewis, Femi. "Ralph Abernathy: Advisor and Confidante to Martin Luther King Jr." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/ralph-abernathy-biography-4019498. Lewis, Femi. (2021, February 16). Ralph Abernathy: Advisor and Confidante to Martin Luther King Jr. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/ralph-abernathy-biography-4019498 Lewis, Femi. "Ralph Abernathy: Advisor and Confidante to Martin Luther King Jr." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/ralph-abernathy-biography-4019498 (accessed March 28, 2023).