This Black History Month I’m Grateful for Ralph Abernathy
“Bring on your tear gas, bring on your grenades, your new
supplies of Mace, your state troopers and even your National Guards. But let
the record show we ain’t going to be turned around.”
– Ralph Abernathy
Despite being older and initially more recognized than
Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy will always be viewed as MLK’s
sidekick. But what an important sidekick.
Ralph Abernathy was something of a prodigy, having become
the pastor of Montgomery, Alabama’s largest Black church at only 25. It was
this position that helped make Abernathy such a prominent member of the local
NAACP and a natural leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the
organization built around the Montgomery bus boycott. Soon after, Abernathy
became Vice President in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC),
among the most prominent of civil rights organizations.
Abernathy never received the public acclaim of King but was
his most valued ally. Racist groups were well aware of Abernathy’s importance
to the civil rights movement and attempted to assassinate him on numerous
occasions. Abernathy was viewed within the movement as King’s most important strategist
and best friend. In the minds of some, Abernathy had more sway over King’s
thinking than even his wife, Coretta Scott King.*
After King’s murder, Abernathy assumed the presidency of
SCLC and fulfilled King’s dream for a Poor People’s Campaign, an attempt to
advocate for the needs of the most desperate Americans, regardless of their
race. Even as the civil rights coalition fractured, Abernathy remained active
in social issues. He worked to resolve the Wounded Knee conflict between
American Indian activists and the federal government; became President of the
World Peace Council; and led numerous initiatives to guarantee economic
While Martin Luther King was the unquestioned leader of the mainstream
civil rights movement, Ralph Abernathy played a critical role in it. His
allegiance to King and support of the vision of racial equality was an
inimitable boon to the movement. Few people could have stood so firmly in so
large a shadow.
Today I am grateful for Ralph Abernathy. You should be too.
*Check back Wednesday.