Produced on March 11, 1926, in Linden, Alabama, Ralph D. Abernathy was a Baptist minister who, with Martin Luther King Jr., coordinated the historic Montgomery bus boycotts. He co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was a leading civil rights figure, serving as close advisor to King and after assuming SCLC presidency. After returning to the ministry, Abernathy expired on April 17, 1990, in Atlanta, Georgia. Upon graduating from high school, Abernathy was drafted in the U.S. Army during World War II, later leaving his family’s 500-acre farm.
Following his military service, in 1948, Abernathy became an ordained minister while pursuing his instruction. He earned a math degree from Alabama State College in 1950, and received a master’s degree in sociology from Atlanta University the next year. He also married Juanita Odessa Jones; the two would have four kids together.
The two formed an amazing bond and also would become leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1955, the pair founded the Montgomery Improvement Association and formed a yearlong bus boycott. Their activities were triggered by the arrest of Rosa Parks, who’d refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. The boycott captured the nation’s focus but also brought violence; Abernathy’s house and church were damaged by bomb blasts. The risk did not discourage Abernathy. King was president and Abernathy finally became vice president.
After that year, when King took his civil rights attempts to Atlanta, Abernathy followed, working at the West Hunter Street Baptist Church. Both activists continued to organize demonstrations, sit ins and marches. Abernathy was detained with King 17 times and was constantly by King’s side, including when the civil rights leader was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Abernathy worked to keep King’s spirit living and became president of the SCLC.
In 1977, Abernathy relinquished his job as SCLC president and ran to get a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1989, his autobiography As Well As the Walls Came Tumbling Down was released. Ralph D. Abernathy expired on April 17, 1990, in Atlanta, Georgia. He will often be recalled as King’s closest confidante and second in command. The truth is, King himself said in his last address, “Ralph David Abernathy is the best friend that I got in the planet.”