(RNS) In a scene in the movie “Selma,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sits in a jail cell wondering where the civil rights movement is headed. His cellmate, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy Sr., responds with a lesson from the Gospel of Matthew about the futility of worrying.
In real life, the two men — family and colleagues say — were inseparable. One man is honored with a national holiday that will be celebrated Monday (Jan. 19) 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,” King said of Abernathy when his colleague introduced him for what would be his last sermon, in Memphis, Tenn.
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 his namesake 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.
King and Abernathy were so close that they dined together with their spouses and children, who called each of the men “Uncle.”
“Martin didn’t do anything that Ralph David Abernathy didn’t do except he took a bullet,” Juanita Abernathy recalled 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.
“They only met once and my husband was standing right there,” said Juanita Abernathy, who lives in Atlanta. “They shook hands across him — Martin and Malcolm.”
Ralph Abernathy grew up in Linden, Ala., 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 were co-founders 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,” he said. “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.
“Ralph Abernathy kept on moving and working to change the course of history in the United States of America for African-Americans and minorities,” his widow said, “and he didn’t stop until he died.”
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. Freedom Summer training sessions and other voter education projects were held at the church.
Last month, President Obama signed legislation that calls for the site to undergo a special NPS study.
“West Hunter Street Baptist Church stands as a testimony to social activism, civic engagement and the important role African-American churches have played in the American civil rights movement,” said Brent Leggs, a senior field officer with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “By preserving this landmark, we honor the remarkable life once lived of Ralph David Abernathy Sr., an iconic freedom leader in American history, and the countless and nameless heroes of the movement.”
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 — he and Dr. King,” recalled Terrie Randolph, who was Abernathy’s secretary when he became president of SCLC after King’s death. “You wouldn’t see one without the other and for any — not only major but minor — decision they consulted with each other.”
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,” he said. “Black men came together that were not brothers, but were brothers in spirit.”
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“Washington DC, USA-August 24, 2013: Messages are posted on a board in remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the 50th anniversary of the civll rights march on Washington DC. The original civil rights march took place on August 28, 1963. These messages are at the King Center Imaging Project at a park near the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington DC.”
No historical figure has shaped my leadership and passion for ministry like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Growing up in South Carolina, I was exposed to the hardships of the Civil Rights Movement at an early age. I recall my parents taking us to the King Center in Atlanta to watch Dr. King passionately deliver speeches and to trace our African American history in pictures. As a college student and for several years after, I visited the King Center annually and it became a pilgrimage of sorts, reminding me of what the Lord has done for us collectively as black people in America. Visiting the King Center also provided assurance that as sure as God has sealed my past, he most certainly will sustain my future if I continue to abide in Him alone.
As a seminary student, the expansive reach of Dr. King’s ministry and messages often intrigues me. There are numerous books written by people, both Christian and non-Christian, all across the world that share the convictions and quote the wise words of Dr. King. Whenever they reference him, I am reminded that they have heard and been deeply impacted by the voice of an African-American man. I am also reminded of his faithfulness and the cost Dr. King paid for the influence of his leadership. Walking in a divine purpose, pursuing a dream, and having influence always costs us something, but the benefit of the costs is that our obedience directly impacts the lives of others.
I smiled when I read that President Barack Obama would use Dr. Martin Luther King’s bible to take his oath of office in the upcoming inauguration. Considering African American history, this feels like a full circle moment. I’m certain Dr. King’s dream inspired the vision, hope, and presidency of Barack Obama. That’s why my husband and I honored the historic inauguration of the first African-American President of the United States by celebrating African-American men. We invited young men to a social to hear the wise words of respectable African-American men who were husbands, fathers, hard workers, leaders, mentors, tutors, and servants. We invited them to dream.
The truth is: the “hope” and “change” we all need are not found in President Barack Obama or any political party, government system, or human structure. I am praying for God to raise up other-centered men – Dr. Tony Evans would call them kingdom-minded men – who know their purpose, pursue their dreams, and do not take lightly their influence. In a culture that only values black boys for their physical stamina, the way they carry a ball, or recite song lyrics, I am praying for young black boys to rise in the same spirit that fueled Dr. King. I pray that they will dream again and dream big.
It was 1984 when members of Martin Luther King Jr’s fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, conceived the idea for a memorial to the iconic civil rights leader. Today, their dream became reality when the King memorial opened to the public on the National Mall in Washington D.C.
Let the Celebration Begin
Urban Faith will be there Sunday when the memorial is dedicated, but the five-day Week of Dedication begins Wednesday with a formal dinner, followed by a concert Thursday, a women’s luncheon Friday, a Kennedy Center celebration Friday night, and a youth event, a Dream Gala and a prayer service Saturday. Tickets to these events can be purchased on the memorial website.
Sunday’s dedication begins with a musical tribute at 8:30 a.m. The dedication ceremony is scheduled for 11:00 am, and a concert is slated for 2:00 p.m. Sunday’s events are free and open to the public.
Update: At 7:30 p.m. on August 25, the memorial foundation announced that the dedication ceremony will be postponed until a date in September or October due to severe weather concerns. Saturday’s 10:00 a.m. prayer service will be the final dedication event this week.
Verbal and Virtual Tours
In an extensive report about the memorial, The Root described it like this: “Bordering Washington, D.C.’s Tidal Basin between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, a 30-foot granite sculpture of the prominent civil rights activist looms. It’s flanked by a crescent-shaped wall inscribed with 14 excerpts from some of King’s most notable sermons and speeches. Further enhancing the site are 182 cherry blossom trees, which will reach full bloom each April, the month of King’s death. And the memorial’s street address, 1964 Independence Avenue, references the 1964 Voting Rights Act, a milestone of the civil rights movement.”
Diversity Debuts at the Mall
“This is going to be a first in two different ways — it’s the first memorial on the National Mall to honor a man of peace, and a man of color,” Harry Johnson Sr., president and CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, told The Root. “Now the Mall as we know it, the great land on which we honor our heroes, will be diversified much like this country.”
But the monument has not been without controversy, The Huffington Post reported last month. Not only is it 11 feet taller than the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, but members of the sculpting community have objected to the choice of Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin, who they say made King’s features appear too Asian. King’s son Martin Luther King III told USA Today, however, that the memorial is a better reflection of his father than most of the ones he’s seen.
Rep. John Lewis Reflects
NPR was there when when the scaffolding around the memorial came down and talked to Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), who spoke at the March on Washington in 1963. “I was moved to tears,” said Lewis.
The Anniversary of a Dream
Four hundred thousand people are expected to attend the dedication, according to The Huffington Post. It will be held on the 47th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
What do you think of the King memorial and its significance? Will you attend the celebrations?