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Ralph Abernathy: MLK’s overlooked “civil rights twin”

By Adelle M. Banks/Religion News Service
On January 26, 2015
Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King Jr.

Abernathy (left) and King were tight as twins during the Civil Rights movement.

In a scene in the movie “Selma,” Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sits in a jail cell wondering where the civil rights movement is headed. His cellmate, Rev. Ralph Abernathy Sr., responds with a lesson from the Gospel of Matthew about the futility of worrying.

In real life, the two men were inseparable. One man is honored with a national holiday that was celebrated at the start of the week, while the other is frequently overlooked, even as he continued King’s plans for decades after King’s 1968 assassination.

“Ralph is the best friend that I have in the world,” said King when his colleague introduced him for what would be his last sermon, in Memphis, Tennessee.

But Abernathy, who died in 1990 at age 64, was harshly criticized for writing in his autobiography, “And the Walls Came Tumbling Down,” about King’s marital infidelity. Abernathy’s family members believe that criticism contributed to efforts to “erase” him from the annals of civil rights history.

His widow and son say the new movie does not fully depict the close partnership he had with King.

“It has some positive aspects,” said Juanita Abernathy, who married her husband in 1952. “But the portrayal of my husband, no, it is not correct and that is one of the tragedies of ‘Selma.’”

Asked for a comment about the family’s reaction, director Ava DuVernay said Abernathy’s widow was “nothing but complimentary” at a screening she attended, and her son requested that his daughter get a role as an extra. His request was granted.

“Martin didn’t do anything that Ralph David Abernathy didn’t do except he took a bullet,” recalled Juanita Abernathy in an interview. “Martin never made a decision that Ralph Abernathy was not a part of. And it trickled down from the two of them to everybody else.”

She said historic photos prove her point: many show the two men together at significant moments, marching arm in arm or meeting with other figures of the 1960s, including Malcolm X.

Ralph Abernathy grew up in Linden, Alabama and served in the segregated Army in World War II before starting his life as a pastor in his home state. He was the leader of First Baptist Church of Montgomery and a member of the local NAACP chapter. When Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to yield her seat on the bus to a white man, he got the call from the chapter president and suggested involving a new local pastor, King, in the steps that led to their joint work on the Montgomery bus boycott in the 1950s.

Later, both men co-founded of the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil rights organization that Abernathy led after King’s death.

Abernathy was one of the last people to speak with King. In a 1986 interview in the Syracuse Herald-American, he recalled that King stepped onto their motel balcony in Memphis while Abernathy went to put on some Aramis cologne. Then a shot was fired. “I had lost my best friend,” said Abernathy. “The Aramis saved my life.”

After the assassination, Abernathy marched in Washington to fulfill King’s plans for the Poor People’s Campaign and later worked to get Black politicians elected. Controversially, he endorsed Republican Ronald Reagan, who later signed the law marking the King national holiday.

Abernathy’s son, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy III, has spearheaded an initiative to get his father’s Atlanta church, West Hunter Street Baptist, to receive a National Park Service designation. Last month, President Obama signed legislation that calls for the site to undergo a special NPS study.

Those who worked with Abernathy said his association with King was closer than most people realize.

“They used to call them the civil rights twins,” recalled Terrie Randolph, who was Abernathy’s secretary when he became president of SCLC after King’s death.

The younger Abernathy compared his “Uncle Martin” and his father to the biblical description of Jesus’ sending out the disciples “two by two.”

“You give Ed McMahon to Johnny Carson. You can even give Bobby Kennedy to John. Black men came together that were not brothers, but were brothers in spirit.”

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