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Ralph David Abernathy

co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and organizer of the Poor People's Campaign March on Washington, D.C.

Ralph David Abernathy

Ralph David Abernathy was born in Linden, Alabama, on March 11, 1926. He was drafted into the army in 1944, and after his term of service he used the GI Bill to attend Alabama State College, from which he graduated with honors in mathematics in 1950. His political activism began in college, when he led demonstrations protesting the lack of heat and hot water in his dormitory and the terrible food served in the cafeteria. In 1951 he earned his Masters in sociology from Atlanta University. In that same year, he was named pastor of the First Baptist Church in Mongtomery, Alabama.

Abernathy began his civil rights work by joining the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1955, he organized the Montgomery Improvement Association. He became nationally known that same year, when he and Martin Luther King, Jr., organized a boycott of the city bus system, following the refusal of Rosa Parks to relinquish her seat to a white passenger.

Following the dynamiting of his home and church in 1957, Abernathy joined King in organizing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which soon became the nation's leading advocate of nonviolence. In 1961, he moved his family to Atlanta, where he became pastor of the West Hunter Street Baptist Church and Secretary-Treasurer of the SCLC. He was elected Vice-President-At-Large of the SCLC in 1965.

On April 9, 1968, Abernathy was elected President of the SCLC, succeeding King, who had been assassinated on April 4. Less than a week after assuming office, he led a march to support striking sanitation workers in Memphis. In May 1968 he organized the Poor People's Campaign March on Washington, D.C. Hoping to bring attention to the plight of the nation's impoverished, he constructed huts on the Mall, precipitating a showdown with police that resulted in his being jailed for twenty days.

Abernathy leading the Poor People's March
Abernathy leading the Poor People's March

Abernathy's tenure as SCLC president was marked by internal tension between younger, more militant members, who advocated dramatic actions, and older, more conservative members, who favored the traditional nonviolent demonstrations. In addition, his fund-raising efforts were less than successful, which further strained the organization. Accusations of financial mismanagement led to his resignation as SCLC president in 1977. That same year he ran for a seat in the Georgia Legislature, but lost.

After leaving the SCLC, Abernathy resumed his work as a full-time minister in Atlanta.

Abernathy's autobiography, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, was published in 1989.

Ralph David Abernathy died in Atlanta on April 17, 1990.

Abernathy's many awards and recognitions included honorary degrees from Long Island University, Morehouse College, Kalamazoo College, and Alabama State University, and the naming of a major Atlanta highway in his honor.

The New Georgia Encyclopedia

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

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