April 17, 1990-Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Jr. dies at the age of 64 in Atlanta, Georgia after suffering cardiac arrest following a lung scan by doctors after suffering strokes a few weeks prior. The late Abernathy is best remembered as co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and close friend of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Abernathy was King’s side after he was shot and fatally wounded on April 4, 1968. The two icons, along with Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, Stanley Levison and many other prominent proponents of civil rights, drove a movement that culminated with the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act signed in law by then President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 2, 1964. The marches of Selma and Washington stand out as Dr. King’s shining moments, but behind the scenes there was much more than transpired and many unsung heroes. The road to the passage of the Act was wrought with incarceration, physical assault and even murder. The 1960s remains one of the most violent in American history as political figures were assassinated and the world came to the brink of nuclear war.
This invaluable autobiography by Abernathy also serves as a historical record of the effort required to finally end Jim Crow segregation that demoralized American society. Abernathy recounts his beginnings in Linden, Alabama as one of 11 children. From an early age, his drive and passion for his goals and visions is readily apparent as he takes us back to relive his experiences as young African-American male in the heavily segregated American South. His early life is full of incredible achievements and in 1954, when he meets King, his life changes yet again, but this time on a grand scale. Because the book deals with a critical part in American history, which unfortunately is also highly regrettable, several well-noted infamous characters make an appearance such as James “Jim” Clark, the former sheriff of Dallas County Alabama and Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, the former Commission for Public Safety in Birmingham, Alabama.
There’s a section of the book that apparently caused much consternation when it was published. As is known today, infidelity was an issue that came up more than once during King’s campaign or social justice. Abernathy doesn’t avoid the issue but he doesn’t condemn King either. And as close friend, I wouldn’t expect him to. The point of the book is that this Abernathy’s life story supplemented with a factual record of how the breakthrough Act was put into law. To devote time and attention to any and all rumors of infidelity would detract from the overall purpose of the book. And on the other hand, if he didn’t address it, it would also detract from the book as not being historically accurate. I feel Abernathy took the most balanced approach to a very taboo subject even today.
Many years have passed since the events in this book transpired, but the lessons we learn from it continue to be relevant today. As American finds itself in the midst of a looming social revolution, Abernathy and King’s words will stay with us and remind us that the movement never ends. And when the horrific, cruel and inhuman system of Jim Crow was broken, it signaled a step in a new direction for all Americans. This is American history, the good, the bad and the regrettable.