*In 1954, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t the civil rights icon he would eventually become. At the time, King was in his mid-20s and served as the new pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. A well-known pastor in Montgomery mentored King. The mentor was Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, Sr., senior pastor of First Baptist Church, one of Montgomery’s oldest Black congregations. Abernathy and King became close friends.
“My father taught him how to pastor, how to lead a church,” said Donzaleigh Abernathy, daughter of Ralph and Juanita Abernathy. “He taught him how to administer communion.”
The two pastors were pushed into the national spotlight, when on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a young seamstress in Montgomery, refused to relinquish her seat to a white man on a Montgomery City Bus. Four days after her arrest, Abernathy and King led a group of the city’s Black ministers and community leaders to form the Montgomery Improvement Association. The Abernathy-King-led organization gave birth to a “mighty movement” of change called the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
“My father issued the call for the creation of the Movement,” said Donzaleigh. “Everyone knew my father because he was a member of the Montgomery NAACP, but Dr. King was relatively new in town. They didn’t know him that well.”
The Montgomery Bus Boycott’s mission was to convince the Black citizens of Montgomery to not board public busses for any reason. After 12 months of strong solidarity, the city’s transit system was brought to its knees financially. The huge losses, and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that public bus segregation was unconstitutional, ended the boycott on December 17, 1956, 381 days after it started. Thus, the Montgomery Bus Boycott is considered to be the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.
Donzaleigh wasn’t born during the historic boycott. She entered the world on August 5, 1957, three days before her father and King held the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s first convention in Montgomery. The two were the principal co-founders of the organization earlier in 1957. Donzaleigh said her childhood was filled with experiences, events and accounts of incidents that powered the Civil Rights Movement.
“Growing up in the Civil Rights Movement was compelling and really powerful,” said Donzaleigh, who has been an actress since 1990. “Unfortunately, it was also very frightening. The responsibilities that fell on us as children were arduous and quite challenging. Marching was wonderful; I loved that. The hardest part was in between, when we received daily telephone calls from white supremacists threatening to kill us.”
In 1961, Rev. Abernathy moved his family to Atlanta, where he served as senior pastor of West Hunter Street Baptist Church. King, in 1959, had moved his own family to Atlanta, where he became pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Donzaleigh remembers growing up with the King children. She and her siblings called Dr. King, Uncle Martin, and his wife, Aunt Coretta. Donzaleigh said the Abernathy and King children integrated Spring Street Elementary School in Atlanta. However, interacting with other children outside of school wasn’t possible.
“We were isolated,” Donzaleigh said about the Abernathy children. “We would see other children at school or at church on Sundays, but they didn’t come to our house to play with us. It just didn’t happen because my father and Uncle Martin lives were always on the edge of underlying threats of violence. The only children that we played with were the King children.”
From Atlanta, Abernathy and King organized many nonviolent protests, sit-ins and marches, in such places as Albany (Georgia), Birmingham and Selma (Alabama); Mississippi; Washington D.C.; St. Augustine (Florida); Chicago; Memphis; and other towns and cities.
Donzaleigh said she will always remember the Selma to Montgomery March, held in late March of 1965. There had been two failed attempts earlier in the month. She didn’t walk the entire way of the third march but legged a significant part of the 54-mile journey on U.S. Route 80.
“On day four, my father had the family come down from Atlanta to march,” said Donzaleigh. “I’m a slow walker and I was on the front line. As we got to the outskirts of Montgomery, I was tired. Uncle Martin was getting stronger the closer we got to Montgomery. He wanted us to walk faster, but I was walking so slow.”
Donzaleigh recalls the March’s “Stars for Freedom” Rally, held on a rain-soaked field at the City of St. Jude, a Catholic social services complex on the outskirts of Montgomery on March 24, 1965. The place served as the final resting spot for the night before an estimated 25,000 marchers pressed on to the State Capitol in Montgomery the next morning. Activist, singer, and actor, Harry Belafonte, organized the lineup of entertainers to perform for the resting marchers. In addition to Belafonte, other performers included Sammy Davis, Jr., Odetta, Joan Baez, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, Peter, Paul and Mary, and many more.
There were many other incredibly important civil rights events, which were co-organized and co-led by Donzaleigh’s father and her godfather, Dr. King. Abernathy was with King when King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis. Abernathy introduced King to the audience at the Mason Temple in Memphis the night before, which led to King’s giving his prophetic speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”
Following King’s murder, Abernathy assumed presidency of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, ultimately stepping down in 1977.
In 1989, Abernathy released his autobiography, titled, “And the Walls Came Tumbling Down.” The book, according to Abernathy at the time, was written to provide an in-depth look at the Civil Rights Movement, which he and King started and co-led. The book, however, was controversial after Abernathy wrote some sexual details about King with other women. More than a dozen prominent civil rights leaders in 1989, called for the book to be boycotted.
In the ensuing decades since the book was published, Abernathy’s name and contributions to the Civil Rights Movement have not been widely discussed – and in many cases – not mentioned at all.
For Donzaleigh, it’s highly disappointing that many people don’t know about her father’s pioneering work and contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. And it’s unfortunate that a vast number of people never read the book.
“His book is the closest that people will ever come to how the Civil Rights Movement was created, and the closest that you will ever come to the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement,” she said. “When people were told to boycott my father’s book, it was a great disservice. If you read the book, it’s a great love letter to Dr. King, and to Black people.”
On April 17, 1990, less than a year after “And the Walls Came Tumbling Down” was released, Rev. Ralph David Abernathy Sr. died. Yet his rich contributions and legacy to the Civil Rights Movement are indisputable.