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Abernathy, Ralph David (1926–1990) - Minister, civil rights activist, Call to the Ministry, Chronology

alabama college black church

Ralph David Abernathy was born on March 11, 1926, the tenth child of twelve children born to William L. Abernathy and Louivery Valentine Bell in Linden, Alabama. Shortly after his grandmother delivered him she told her daughter that he was a strange child and predicted that he would be known throughout the world. From the age of twelve he was called David, and indeed it is the name on his birth certificate, which has never been officially changed. His sister Manerva, however, was very impressed by one of her college professors whose name was Ralph David, and started calling her little brother by that name.

David Abernathy grew up on his father’s five-hundred-acre Linden farm. His father had married well; he was given a milk cow and a calf as a wedding gift. He immediately started buying land, a few acres at a time, until he acquired the whole five hundred acres. The Abernathys lived in the large, long bungalow with six rooms that the father William built. Prosperous yet frugal, the family set aside money for church and education. In fact, David remembered his father donating up to $1,000 toward education during a Sunday morning plea from the Linden Academy principal.

Abernathy’s high school was interrupted by military service: when he turned eighteen he was immediately drafted. After serving in the segregated U.S. Army, during which time his father died, Abernathy returned home and earned a GED certificate. In 1945, using his GI benefits, he enrolled at Alabama State College in Montgomery, a school committed to higher education for blacks.

In his sophomore year, as student council president, Abernathy directly faced his first case of injustice. A campus controversy arose over two separate menus being prepared for faculty and students. The problem gave Abernathy his first opportunity to lead a demonstration in protest against discriminatory practices. After several conversations with the dining hall supervisor, Abernathy encouraged a strike of the entire student body, boycotting the dining hall and refusing to eat anything until the food they were served improved. All students enthusiastically supported the idea and agreed to begin in two days. Two mornings later the faculty marched in to eat their usual meal of eggs, bacon, and cereal; the supervisor fixed hundreds of pieces of toast for the students but no one showed up to eat them. The boycott was effective in bringing about an improvement in student meals.

Alabama State College may have seemed sleepy and docile to outsiders, but black professors such as J. E. Pierce, who taught political science, made students understand how important the ballot was to their future and how courageous they would have to be to ensure black suffrage. Emma Payne Howard, director of extracurricular activities, stressed the need for racial progress and made students understand that a religious vocation can be compatible with a social conscience. In 1950 Abernathy graduated with honors from Alabama State College with an undergraduate degree in mathematics, and he was accepted at Atlanta University to work on a master’s degree in sociology.

Call to the Ministry

During his college days Abernathy was devoutly religious. In fact, he was superintendent of the student Sunday school, and people anticipated he would enter the ministry. In April 1948, at age twenty-two, Abernathy announced his call to preach. Immediately churches filled to capacity with students from school and family members all eager to hear him. During this time he led a protest regarding the need for improved living conditions in the dormitories.

In the fall of 1950 when Abernathy enrolled in Atlanta University, he visited Ebenezer Baptist Church and heard Martin Luther King Jr. give a sermon. After the service he went over to shake King’s hand and in that moment both men recognized a kindred spirit in the other. Also while at Alabama State College, Abernathy met Juanita Odessa Jones, the woman who became his wife.

At age twenty-six, Abernathy became the seventh pastor of the historic First Baptist Church of Montgomery, Alabama. He was married in this church and while serving at this church the couple’s first child was born and died.

Abernathy became pastor at First Baptist during a propitious time. A new generation of black men and women were coming along, people who were less patient and less afraid of making trouble. Born and reared in an environment where a black man was not free to use public facilities, drink from water fountains, or sit anywhere he wanted to on a bus, Abernathy knew this younger generation had not lived with racial discrimination quite as long and many had traveled beyond its limitations. These young people knew life could be different and were half-inclined to believe that the promised changes were really going to come soon. Instead of preaching about submission and the virtues of patient suffering, Abernathy preached about courage and justice and the necessity of gaining equality. He warned people of struggles to come and explained to them that they would be fighting for their own dignity as creatures of God and for the dignity for their children and grandchildren.


1926 Born in Linden, Alabama on March 11

1944 Drafted into the U.S. Army in an all-black unit

1945 Discharged from the Army; enrolls at Alabama State College in Montgomery

1948 Announces decision to enter the ministry

1948 Becomes pastor of Montgomery’s black First Baptist Church 1950 Earns B.A. from Alabama State University 1952 Marries Juanita Odessa Jones

1955 Begins work with Martin Luther King Jr.

1956 Joins in 381-day bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama

1963 Participates in march on Washington, D. C. on August 28

1968 Witnesses assassination of King in Memphis, Tennessee

1969 Mounts campaign for the hospital employees in Charleston, South Carolina

1970 Travels to Europe and South America promoting peace and human rights

1982 Lobbies Congress for the extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1965

1990 Dies of heart failure in Atlanta, Georgia on April 17

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over 6 years ago

this gave some information but not enough about his family and his life so its to hard to sqeeze good info out of it like to do a whole powerpoint or finish a school projecgt