“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.