Ralph Abernathy was born on March 11, 1926 to William L. and Louivery Bell Abernathy of Linden, Alabama. His father was the son of a slave and supported his twelve member family as a farmer while serving as deacon of the local Baptist church. Abernathy graduated from Linden Academy and then served overseas with the United States Army toward the end of World War II. He was ordained as a Baptist minister in 1948, and two years later he received a BS in mathematics at Alabama State College in Montgomery. He later earned an MA in sociology from Atlanta University in 1958.
Ordained a Baptist minister in 1948, he studied at Alabama State College and Atlanta University. While a graduate student at Atlanta University, Abernathy heard Martin Luther King’s sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church. In his autobiography, Abernathy recalled ‘‘burning with envy’’ at King’s ‘‘learning and confidence,’’ and he immediately saw King as a "man with a special gift from God". Abernathy introduced himself to King that day and their friendship began. The two became widely known after the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts in 1955-56.
The Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56 was sparked by Rosa Parks' refusal to relinquish her bus seat to a white man, and inspired King and Abernathy to establish the Montgomery Improvement Association. The group provided leadership for the successful boycott of Montgomery’s segregated bus system. More importantly however, this boycott marked the beginning of the civil rights movement. In 1957, with the hope of building upon this victory, Abernathy and King, along with other black southern ministers, established the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Their goal was to form an organization that would supply the civil rights movement with sustained leadership.
Ralph Abernathy was the chief partner of Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement. After King's assassination in 1968, Abernathy assumed the presidency, by leading the Poor People's Campaign March on Washington, D.C., with daily demonstrations in May and June 1968, just a month after King's assassination. Abernathy also presided over SCLC's Operation Breadbasket, which used economic pressure against companies that did not provide equal opportunities to blacks.
Abernathy's decade-long tenure as SCLC president was marked by internal tension between factions competing for control of the organization's direction. He was frustrated by the growing dispute between younger, more militant members, who advocated protests and dramatic actions, and older, more conservative members, who favored more traditional measures such as marches. Under Abernathy's leadership the SCLC's fund-raising campaigns were less than successful, which placed the organization on an unstable financial footing. Abernathy resigned in 1977 amid accusations of financial mismanagement, leaving a once substantial and prominent civil rights organization in decline.
In 1977, he resigned from the SCLC after an unsuccessful bid for the US House of Representatives seat in Atlanta. After the election, he returned to serve as pastor of the West Hunter Street Baptist Church in Atlanta. A year before his death, he published his autobiography, entitled And the Walls Came Tumbling Down. He died in Atlanta on April 17, 1990.
- Ralph David Abernathy, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: An Autobiography (New York: Harper and Row, 1989)
- David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 1955-1968 (New York: Morrow, 1986)
- Anthony Lewis, Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment (New York: Random House, 1991)