Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2168
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 Church in the same city, the stage was set for their historic partnership. Both King and Abernathy were still in their twenties and recently married. Neither seemed particularly inclined to become involved in a major Civil Rights effort. For about a year after his marriage, Abernathy saw his wife only on weekends, since she commuted to the Monroe County Training School in Beatrice, Alabama, where she taught. The next year a child was born, but the boy died, causing great anguish to both Juanita and Ralph, who longed for children. As it turned out, a daughter, Juandalynn, was born the next year, and still later during the Montgomery period another daughter, Donzaleigh, and a son, Ralph David, III, were born.
The refusal of Rosa Parks, a black seamstress and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) secretary, to yield her bus seat to a white man on December 1, 1955, greatly changed the lives of Abernathy, King, and indeed all Americans. From this event came the 381-day boycott of the segregated transit system and the formation of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), of which Abernathy became program chairman, with King as president.
Some two-thirds of Abernathy’s book is devoted to the period from the Montgomery boycott to the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign that culminated in the march on Washington and the construction of Resurrection City after King’s assassination. During those thirteen years, Abernathy was always close to King and served as a kind of pastor to the SCLC team. If always under the shadow of the better-known King, Abernathy was also his friend, aide, and adviser, and he experienced many of the same crises, joys, and challenges. Even as the SCLC was being formed in January, 1957, the Abernathy home in Montgomery was bombed, forcing him and King to leave the Ebenezer Baptist Church conference to check on Juanita and the baby. Although his family survived the blast, there was much other violence in Montgomery, including the bombing of his First Baptist Church and several other homes and churches.
Abernathy’s treatment of subsequent events is selective and personal. His coverage remains autobiographical and is always focused on his involvement in the nonviolent movement and his relationship with King. There is much information on the human aspects of the struggle: faith and disappointment, suffering and triumphs, danger and determination. There is little coverage of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), although he does note the resentment among SNCC leaders in Albany, Georgia, in 1962, of the media’s focus on King, and he describes that organization’s drift away from nonviolence in the late 1960’s. Of the Albany campaign, Abernathy observes that it “was not really a total and unredeemable failure but a laboratory where we learned a great deal and lost little but time.” He then turns to Birmingham, St. Augustine, Selma, and the legal victories of 1964 and 1965—the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.
Abernathy’s accounts of the campaigns in Alabama provide little that is factually new; what is most valuable is the insider’s perspective, giving the reader a sense of the feelings and goals of the black community. Abernathy also underscores the importance of interracial cooperation. In Birmingham, for example, be says that “we had won a great victory, not merely because we had defeated Bull Connor on his home field, but more importantly because we had persuaded the basically decent white leaders of Birmingham to come forward for the first time and take charge of race relations in their own city.”
On the Selma campaign of 1965—which, more than any other, contributed directly to the passage of the Voting Rights Act—Abernathy offers some interesting material on the behind-the-scenes communication between Hosea Williams in Selma and Abernathy and King, both of whom were back home preaching on the day of extreme violence known as Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965. Williams, Andrew Young, John Lewis, and the other SCLC staff members in Selma were not certain whether to proceed with the projected march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to Montgomery. They called Abernathy at his church, and he in turn contacted King in the midst of his church service. They cautiously agreed to the march that ended in a bloody attack by mounted police. A few days later, King, Abernathy, and virtually all the SCLC leadership actually completed the march. The Selma encounter, says Abernathy, was more than an episode in the Civil Rights drama:
“The very philosophy of nonviolence was on trial in Selma.” Like most other observers, Abernathy affirms that the sight of the unbridled violence pricked the public conscience and moved Congress to ensure voting rights for all citizens.
The most controversial aspect of the Abernathy autobiography is its endorsement of the view that King had a “weakness for women” and engaged in a number of extramarital affairs. On balance, Abernathy treats King positively and respectfully, describing him as the recognized leader of the nonviolent movement and as a man of courage and wisdom. Although he does not justify King’s alleged sexual encounters, Abernathy explains them in terms of King’s natural attraction to women as a hero of black people and a warmly compassionate person. He also cites the long periods of time away from home under warlike conditions. The issue remains problematical, however, as does Abernathy’s account, particularly his description of King’s last night in Memphis before his assassination on April 4, 1968. According to Abernathy, King was involved with women that very night and even engaged in an intense argument with one whom he “knocked ... across the bed.” Or, as Abernathy quickly adds, “It was more of a shove than a real blow.” In any case, such treatment of King engendered strong reactions from those whose recollections of that night are different, and for whom such a description harms the image of King as both a nonviolent reformer and a minister.
An extensive section of the book covers the transition in Memphis when Abernathy succeeded King as president of SCLC. Of his own SCLC presidency, Abernathy gives considerable coverage, especially the completion of the Poor People’s Campaign in the summer of 1968. He sees that effort, despite its problems, as a success in the sense of focusing public attention on poverty as King had hoped. He also notes the growing difficulty of keeping focus in the movement and the waning of support from both white liberals and successful blacks. In 1973, he proffered his resignation, only to resume the SCLC presidency after displays of support. By 1977, however, there were moves inside SCLC leadership circles to replace him. He explains his 1977 decision to run for the U.S. House of Representatives in terms of this pressure. Realizing that he would have difficulty winning the seat abandoned by Andrew I Young when Young became U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations for President Jimmy Carter, Abernathy nevertheless entered the campaign. Although he did want to win, he also found the candidacy to be a credible way to step down from the SCLC presidency.
The Abernathy autobiography is part of a growing number of personal accounts by movement participants. Such works are valuable to both the researcher and general reader as sources revealing the interior of the movement. Abernathy’s book does not include noted documentation, nor does it give a consistently detailed account of the movement as a whole. What it does provide is a well-written personal story set against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement. Throughout, King is the dominant figure, defining and shaping Abernathy’s public career. Somewhat ironically, Abernathy’s references to King’s private life tend to overshadow the more substantive elements of the book. Whatever their personal imperfections were, black Americans courageously challenged the bastions of racial segregation, “and the walls came tumbling down.”
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 39
Los Angeles Times Book Review November 12, 1989, p.4.
The New Republic. CCII, January 29, 1990, p.28.
The New York Times Book Review XCIV, October 29, 1989, p.3.
Publishers Weekly CCXXXVI, August 18, 1989, p.43.
Time. CXXXIV, October 23, 1989, p.42.
The Washington Post Book World. XIX, October 15, 1989, p.1.
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