*The Rev. Dr. Ralph David Abernathy’s book, “And the Walls Came Tumbling Down” is a riveting publication that seems to have garnered more controversy than praise for the late civil rights pioneer. When he wrote the 620-page book in 1989, Abernathy’s hope was to give readers an unprecedented look into the historic Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s that he and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. co-created and co-led.
In the introduction section, Abernathy wrote, “I have decided to write this autobiography after all for two reasons: first, to show how life is lived during the era of Jim Crow and, second, to show what it was like to be at the center of the Civil Rights Movement as it operated on a day-by-day basis…I was privileged to be in command headquarters – in the earlier years as Martin Luther King’s closest friend and “pastor” of the movement, and in later years as its leader.”
For most historians of the Civil Rights Movement, they agree that it was jump-started by Abernathy and King a few days after Rosa Parks, a young Black seamstress living in Montgomery, was arrested on December 1, 1955 for refusing to give her seat to a white passenger on a city public bus. What followed was the formation of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which created The Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Boycott was phenomenally successful because Black people were in a lockstep agreement not to ride city buses for any reason. After 381 days of the boycott, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation on city buses was unconstitutional. With the ruling, and the financial hurting the boycott put on Montgomery’s transit system, the boycott ended on December 20, 1956. The next year, Abernathy and King, along with several other civil rights leaders in Montgomery, founded the storied Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
According to “And the Walls Came Tumbling Down,” Abernathy writes that he mentored King, and enlisted him to join the planning phase of the boycott. King, at first, said no, because he was preparing a plan to present to his congregation at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. In 1954, King was relatively new in town and wasn’t well known. Abernathy, on the other hand, was already established in Montgomery, where he was senior pastor of First Baptist Church. He was also an active member of the local NAACP. Through it all, Abernathy and King became close friends in Montgomery, and when the two moved to Atlanta to pastor separate churches – King first followed by Abernathy – the two men were more like blood brothers.
Abernathy and King were the principal architects of dozens and dozens of protests, marches, and sit ins mostly in the South in the ‘50s and ‘60s, up to King’s assassination in April of 1968. However, before his murder, the two civil rights tacticians facilitated massive nonviolent movements in Albany (Georgia), Birmingham and Selma (Alabama), St. Augustine (Florida), Chicago, Memphis, Washington, D.C., and numerous other towns and cities. The book chronicles the joys of victories, as well as the bitterness of defeats of Abernathy-King led protests and marches in the name of equality for Black people.
A book of this magnitude should have been widely read, widely praised, and widely accepted as the “true blueprint and cornerstone” of the Civil Rights Movement. Instead Abernathy’s book started a firestorm, ignited by prominent civil rights leaders after it was learned that Abernathy penned what they called “out of bounds and unnecessary stories” about King.
On pages 434, 435, and 436, Abernathy wrote that King, Bernard Lee, and himself accepted a dinner invitation to the home of a female, who King knew very well. Two other females were present meaning there were three men and three women at King’s friend’s house that evening and well past midnight.
In his book, Abernathy clears the air that Lee and himself just had dinner and conversation with the two other females before the women left. Abernathy wrote that he and Lee fell asleep, but after 1:00 a.m., he (Abernathy) woke up and saw King and his friend coming out of her bedroom. An hour or so later, Abernathy and King drove back to the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where they were staying, along with other civil rights advocates. Abernathy said that he and King went to A.D. King’s room. A.D. was King’s brother. Abernathy’s book reveals that a White woman and Black woman were in the room. The Black woman, Abernathy wrote, had clearly come to see Martin, adding, they had known each other – their relationship was “a close one.”
Returning to the hotel room that he was sharing with King, Abernathy wrote how he left the room door unlocked for Martin. Sometime between 3:00 a.m. and dawn, Abernathy said in the book, another woman showed up looking for King, who wasn’t there. When King arrived at the room several hours later, the woman returned and was mad; she and King had a face-to-face confrontation. She really loved him, wrote Abernathy. Things between the woman and King became physical. According to Abernathy, King “knocked her across the bed.” She got up and engaged in a full-blown fight with King.
On pages 471, 474 and 475, Abernathy offers more insight into the sexual side of King. On one of the pages Abernathy wrote, “We all understood and believed in the biblical prohibition against sex outside of marriage. It was just that he had a particularly difficult time with that temptation. His (King’s) own principal explanation of the difficulty is one I choose not to repeat here.”
Many civil rights leaders called on Abernathy to walk back his published accounts of King’s sexual life outside of his marriage. They felt it was disgraceful that Abernathy included encounters with two women and the violent attack against another woman, when less than 24 hours later King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis. He died in Abernathy’s arms on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
Some said that Abernathy wasn’t in his right mind when he wrote the book, pointing to two recent strokes. Others cited Abernathy’s jealousy of the massive attention and credit King had been receiving for shaping the Civil Rights Movement, when he (Abernathy) knew he co-spearheaded major protests, marches, and sit ins with King.
Abernathy refused to walk anything back about the content of his book, saying “Martin was my dearest friend…I loved him dearly.”
“I can assure you that had Martin’s infidelity not already been the topic of discussions in other books, in the halls of Congress, and in the public forum, my decision would have been simple: avoid the entire issue,” Abernathy said in 1989 when the book was released. “But with two recent books – one or both being Pulitzer Prize winners – talking openly about Martin’s infidelity, I knew that if I ignored the subject then reviewers and readers would say, ‘He’s not telling the truth so the rest of his book is unreliable as well. ‘ ”
Abernathy’s book never got out of hot water, and when 28 prominent Black leaders denounced the book when it was released, calling it “lies” and “slanderous” to King’s character, the publication was largely ignored by Black readers. Abernathy died in 1990, less than seven months after the book was published.
Thirty-two years after Abernathy’s book was called on to be boycotted, it’s rare to hear his name and contributions to the Civil Rights Movement discussed. Why, was it because of “The Book?”
For inquiring minds that want to learn more about the historic Civil Rights Movement, Abernathy’s book, “And the Walls Came Tumbling Down” – a “true masterpiece” – can still be found on Amazon.