Juanita Abernathy watched from her Atlanta home as civil rights and political figures, old and new, led the nation’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington last week.
There were speeches, receptions and two nationally televised marches on the Mall to mark the occasion. But, save for an invitation to a White House reception that she said came too late to accept, Abernathy was not asked to be part of the festivities.
“I was no more invited than if I were dead,” she said.
She went uninvited despite the central role she and her husband, the Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, played in the civil rights movement.
Abernathy died of a heart attack in 1990 at age 64. Since then, his wife — who has served on a series of boards in Atlanta and has traveled widely as a speaker — has been working to defend his legacy.
In 1955, it was Abernathy who persuaded Martin Luther King Jr. — then a newly minted pastor— to lead the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama. In 1957, Abernathy and King helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The two best friends traveled the South, leading efforts to undo American apartheid. Through the years, they shared hotel rooms, jokes, lecterns and jail cells.
After an assassin's bullet cut King down in Memphis in 1968, he died in Abernathy’s arms.
But Abernathy stirred the ire of many civil rights leaders because of what they saw as his shaky stewardship of SCLC after King’s death. He also came under heavy criticism for recounting in his autobiography King’s alleged infidelities.
“I watched a lot of the coverage, and they never even called his name, and that is so unfair for somebody who gave so much,” said Abernathy’s widow, who marched many times with King and her husband and sat on the second row of the speaker’s platform during the original March on Washington. “There is not a door where civil rights is concerned that has been opened in this country that Ralph Abernathy was not part of.”
When King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech culminating the march, Abernathy said her husband’s past formulations were also evident. King’s vision that the “sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners” would one day sit down together at the table of brotherhood echoed a line from a telegram that Abernathy had written to his friend, who was in Albany, Ga., in December 1961:
“I should be with you and with the hundreds of sons and daughters of slaves who have the courage to say to the sons and daughters of former slave holders that this a new day and we want freedom now,” Abernathy wrote.
Civil rights leader Jesse L. Jackson said it would not be unusual for one leader to borrow words from another. “This stuff was in the public domain. The first time you use it , you say, ‘As Dr. Saxson says.’ The second time, you say, ‘As a great philosopher once said.’ The third time, you say, ‘As I always believed.’ Dr. King may have used some stuff that Ralph did. He sure spoke in front of him enough.”
Abernathy was a pastor at Montgomery’s First Baptist Church for three years, when King came to town to lead nearby Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. After Rosa Parks, a seamstress and local NAACP stalwart, was arrested in 1955 for refusing to surrender her bus seat to a white passenger, Abernathy and King helped organizer a bus boycott that ended with the desegregation of buses in Montgomery.
The two ministers went on to help start SCLC, and after they spent more than a decade at the heart of the civil rights movement.
As they traveled the country, Abernathy and King would often both address audiences. Although Abernathy held a master’s degree in sociology, he was considered the more folksy, down-to-earth speaker, while King was noted for his soaring oratory.
“The role that Ralph played was huge,” said Jackson, a onetime SCLC staffer. “Because this leadership thing is lonesome, to have a dependable friend and ally was invaluable.”
For Mrs. Abernathy, her exclusion from the celebration of the march is in line with other slights she thinks her husband endured through the years. The attention that came to King — who won the Nobel Peace Prize, was named Time magazine’s Man of the Year, and wrote numerous books — was sometimes the source of slightly uncomfortable jokes between the two men.
Immediately after the original March on Washington, other SCLC officials said, Abernathy was a little touchy about not being able to address the assembled throng.
“Ralph was upset because he didn’t get to speak. And he was really kind of depressed, so Martin started picking on him trying to cheer him up and said, ‘But Ralph, even though it was our march, even though it started in Birmingham, once it became the march of the civil rights leaders, then they had to make a decision that only the presidents would speak,’ ” recalled Andrew Young, a former SCLC staffer who went on to be mayor of Atlanta and ambassador to the United Nations. “And he said, ‘Next time we come, you’ll have to be the president of your own organization.’ ”
Then King added the punch line: “ ‘I know, we’ll form an organization and nobody can beat you. You will be the champion and we’ll form the National Association of the Advancement of Eatin’ Chicken.’ ” Young recalled King saying. “Ralph was a big eater.”
After King’s assassination, Abernathy took over as president of SCLC. But with most of the state-sponsored apparatus of segregation dismantled, Abernathy was unable to maintain SCLC’s prominence.
He later ran an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. House, and then went on to support conservative Ronald Reagan for president in 1980, drawing the wrath of many black leaders. He drew an even harsher rebuke after publishing his 1989 autobiography, “And the Walls Came Tumbling Down.”
The book contained discussion of King’s alleged extramarital affairs on the night before his assassination. Although other authors had made reference to King’s alleged womanizing, Abernathy seemed to pay a particularly steep price.
A long roster of prominent black leaders accused him of being a traitor to his longtime friend as well as to the movement that they both helped mobilize. Black leaders sent Abernathy a telegram warning that the book could “rob you of your place in history.”
David J. Garrow, the Pulitzer Prize-winning King biographer, called it “incredibly sad” that a movement veteran such as Abernathy would be “ignored and forgotten” during the recent celebration of one of the movement’s greatest moments.
“In the larger arc of history, people should be remembered and celebrated for the best things they have done, not punished for the two or three worst,” he said.
“Of course, his role has been diminished and it’s unfortunate,” Abernathy said of her husband. “But he had a philosophy. He used to say to me: ‘Juanita, real historians will dig up the truth.’ ”