In the long battle for CIVIL RIGHTS, few leaders have had as an important a role as Ralph David Abernathy. From the late 1950s until 1968, Abernathy was the right-hand man of MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. Together in 1957 they founded the SOUTHERN CHRISTIAN LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE (SCLC), the organization chiefly responsible for the nonviolent protest movement whose gains over the next decade included major legal and social reforms for black Americans. Abernathy often shared a place next to King in meetings, marches, and jail, yet despite his considerable contributions to the CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT, he labored largely in King's shadow. Later becoming SCLC president, he watched the transformation of the movement as his influence weakened and his politics changed, until controversy ultimately divided him from its mainstream.
Born on March 11, 1926, in Marengo County, Alabama, Abernathy was the grandson of a slave. His family members were successful farmers, and his father's leadership in the county's black community inspired him. Upon graduating from Linden Academy, he served in the army in WORLD WAR II. He was ordained as a Baptist minister in 1948. He earned a B.A. in mathematics from Alabama State College in 1950, an M.A. in sociology from Atlanta University in 1951, and later a law degree from Allen University in 1960.
The defining moment in Abernathy's life was meeting King. As a student in Atlanta, he had heard King preach in church. From there, they began a friendship that would shape both men's futures. In 1955, while both were pastors in Montgomery, Alabama, they began the first of many local protest actions against RACIAL DISCRIMINATION. They organized a boycott of city
buses by black passengers that led to the successful desegregation of local bus lines one year later. To build on this triumph, the pastors called a meeting of black leaders from ten southern states in January 1957 at an Atlanta church. This meeting marked the founding of the SCLC, which was devoted to the goal of furthering civil rights throughout the south. King was appointed the group's president, Abernathy its secretary-treasurer. The civil rights movement had begun.
Although the SCLC had committed itself to nonviolent protest, the forces they opposed were far from gun-shy. Segregationists bombed Abernathy's home and church. As opposition from individuals as well as government and law enforcement...