Some twenty years after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., his friend and partner Ralph David Abernathy has published a memoir of his own life that is closely interwoven with the history of the Civil Rights movement in the United States. Citing two basic reasons for writing the account, “to show how life was lived during the era of Jim Crow” and to describe the experience of being “at the center of the civil rights movement as it operated on a day-by-day basis,” Abernathy has provided a comprehensive overview that reveals much about the black experience in America.
He was born David Abernathy in 1926 in rural Alabama; the name Ralph was unofficially added when he was about twelve by his sister Manerva, for a teacher she admired. His rural farming background was one of the seminal forces that shaped young Abernathy, whose parents, Will L. and Louivery Valentine Bell Abernathy, instilled in him deep respect for the land and for the values of agricultural life, family, and the church. “My father always said,” he recalls, “that land would be the means by which we would rise in the world.” This linkage between racial progress and economics was to influence Abernathy’s later career as a Civil Rights activist. If he learned “strength, independence, and moral earnestness” from his father, his mother taught him “kindness, love, and gentility.” Reared in the Hopewell Baptist Church, where his father was a deacon and to which the family contributed despite its limited income, Abernathy describes himself as a religious child, named for the Old Testament giant slayer David and always “fascinated with church activities.”
The Great Depression years of the early 1930’s were difficult for the Abernathy family, but there were certain advantages to living from the land and thereby avoiding some of the more severe aspects of the Depression that plagued the large cities. Nevertheless, in a family of twelve, young Abernathy learned the limits of a small Southern farm. The children had to scatter to find ways to make a living; they went out, as he puts it, into “a cold and hostile land somewhere east of Eden.”
At the age of eighteen, Abernathy entered the U.S. Army as the Allies began to close the ring around Nazi Germany in 1944. Noting that he has been questioned at times about fighting in the war despite the segregationist policies of the 1940’s and his own commitment to nonviolence, Abernathy explains that blacks had always responded to patriotic duty and that the extreme racism and imperialism of the Nazi regime justified military action. Abernathy was shipped to Le Havre, France, then to Germany as the end of the war neared. His stories of army life are personal and revealing. Although he experienced racism, he also made friends and learned some of the hard realities of war. The Europe he entered was severely damaged by the conflict. Germany was “a rubble heap.” Everywhere there were signs of the devastating effects of modern warfare, a fact that deeply impressed him. His experience in the army, in fact, helped convince him that he was “committed in principle to a life of nonviolence.”
After returning to the United States, Abernathy entered Alabama State University, although his earlier dream had been to study at Morehouse College in Atlanta, the “Little Harvard of the South.” At Alabama State he participated in several dramas and worked hard at his studies. Barred from athletics by health problems, he sought to excel in other areas. He was determined to be an outstanding student—indeed, to be “the best student in the university, just as I had been the best soldier in my company.” As president of the student council, he was the recipient of whatever complaints came into the student government from the campus of some three thousand students. This gave him considerable experience in effecting compromises and resolving conflicts, one of Abernathy’s strong points when he later assumed a leadership position in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
His interest in the church also continued; he became the superintendent of the student Sunday school program and had regular contact with Christian service. By the time of his graduation, he felt called to the ministry but wanted first to do graduate work. In the fall of 1950, Abernathy entered Atlanta University to study sociology at the graduate level. At this time he first heard Martin Luther King, Jr., deliver a sermon. Young King was in his first year of study at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, and was speaking at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where his father was the pastor. After the service, reports Abernathy, he shook hands with King, and at that first meeting “we both recognized in one another a kindred spirit.” Their careers would soon become intertwined, as both became pastors in Montgomery, Alabama, where the famous bus boycott of 1955-1956 triggered the crucial events of the American Civil Rights movement.
Also during his formative years, Ralph Abernathy met and married Juanita Odessa Jones from Uniontown, Alabama. By the time of their wedding in August, 1952, Abernathy was the pastor of the black First Baptist Church in Montgomery. In
1954, when King was called to be pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist...
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