Juanita Abernathy: RIP

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Abernathy at Georgia State University speaking to the travelers on the Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights Tour (Photo by John Fea)

Here is the obituary from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Juanita Abernathy, the wife of the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy and one of the last stalwarts who helped birth the modern Civil Rights Movement, has died.

Abernathy’s family confirmed her passing in a statement late Thursday, calling her the “last remaining person who was actively involved from ‘day one’ of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Civil Rights Movement.”

They said she died surrounded by her three remaining children and four grandchildren at Piedmont Hospital. The family did not reveal the cause of death.

Juanita Abernathy came of age as a civil rights icon right at the dawn of the modern movement. She was the young wife of Rev. Abernathy, who was a pastoring a church in Montgomery. The couple got to know another young preacher and his wife, Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King. Their friendship and activism helped reshape America’s cultural and political landscape.

In 1957, Abernathy and King started the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The two best friends traveled the South, leading efforts to undo American apartheid. Through the years, they shared hotel rooms, jokes, lecterns and jail cells as they fought to dismantle Jim Crow laws, especially insideous voter disenfranchisment of African Americans.

It was at the Abernathys’ kitchen table, often following a meal prepared by Juanita Abernathy, that the early strategies of the civil rights movement – particular the Montgomery Bus Boycott – were hatched.

Read the rest here.

A few years ago, during Todd Allen’s Civil Rights Bus Tour, we had the chance to meet Abernathy.

Highlander Research and Education Center Torched. White Supremacy Symbol Found.

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MLK, Pete Seeger, Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy, and Charis Horton at Highland Institute, 1957 (Source: http://www.highlandercenter.org)

I am surprised that this is not getting more news coverage.

The Highlander Folk School was founded in 1932 in Grundy County, Tennessee to train labor organizers. By the 1950s, it became a center for training civil rights workers. Rosa Parks prepared for her role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott at the school.  Septima Clark, Martin Luther King Jr., James Bevel, Pete Seeger, Ralph Abernathy, and John Lewis also studied there.

Today it is known as the Highlander Research and Education Center (it moved to New Market, TN in 1971).

On March 29, 2019, the Center burned to the ground.  Here is NBC News:

A Tennessee social justice center that has hosted iconic civil rights leaders was destroyed in a fire and a “white power” symbol was found on the site, the center said.

The symbol, which officials did not describe but said was connected to the white power movement, was discovered after the main office was completely destroyed in a fire last week, the Highlander Research and Education Center said in a news release Tuesday. It was spray-painted on the parking lot connected to the main office.

No one was hurt in Friday’s blaze.

“While we don’t know the names of the culprits, we know that the white power movement has been increasing and consolidating power across the South, across this nation, and globally,” Highlander said. “Since 2016, the white power movement has become more visible, and we’ve seen that manifest in various ways, both subtle and overt.”

And this:

Highlander’s main office was home to decades’ worth of documents, speeches and memorabilia that was lost in the fire, the center said on Facebook.

The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office on Saturday said in a statement that investigators were working with state bomb and arson agents to determine the cause of the fire.

“We are investigating a symbol that was painted in the parking area of the office to see if it has any affiliation to any individual or group,” the sheriff’s office said.

Highlander’s office burned one day after the Oklahoma Democratic Party headquarters and a Chickasaw Nation office were vandalized with racist graffiti. The offices were spray-painted with messages that included a swastika, “1488” — which is frequently used by white supremacists and refers to Adolf Hitler — and anti-Chinese slurs.

Read the entire piece here.

Scholars of the civil rights movement:  How devastating is the archival loss?

Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour: Day 2

Read previous posts in this series here.

The Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour rolled into Atlanta yesterday.  We made three major stops.

First, we visited the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change on Auburn Avenue, just east of downtown.  We saw King’s birth home, his tomb (where he lays with Coretta Scott King), the original Ebenezer Baptist Church (where King was baptized and served as co-pastor with his father), and the various exhibits in the King Center’s Freedom Hall.  (In Freedom Hall we got to see, among other things, King’s doctoral robe, the contents of his closet and dresser following his death, and the contents of the suitcase he carried when he was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968).

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With my daughter Caroline outside of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta

During our visit to the Ebenezer Baptist Church we sat in the sanctuary and listened to King’s famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech.  King preached this sermon in Memphis on the day before he was assassinated.  What makes this sermon so powerful today is the fact that King mentions the possibility of his untimely death:

And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

And I don’t mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

When I first read this sermon in graduate school as part of a course on the Civil Rights Movement, I started calling it the “If I Had Sneezed” speech.  On September 20, 1958, a mentally ill women named Izola Curry attempted to kill King at a Harlem book signing. She stabbed him in the chest with a letter-opener.   King referenced the stabbing in this speech. Here is a taste:

It came out in the New York Times the next morning, that if I had merely sneezed, I would have died. Well, about four days later, they allowed me, after the operation, after my chest had been opened, and the blade had been taken out, to move around in the wheel chair in the hospital. They allowed me to read some of the mail that came in, and from all over the states and the world, kind letters came in. I read a few, but one of them I will never forget. I had received one from the President and the Vice-President. I’ve forgotten what those telegrams said. I’d received a visit and a letter from the Governor of New York, but I’ve forgotten what that letter said. But there was another letter that came from a little girl, a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter, and I’ll never forget it. It said simply,

“Dear Dr. King,

I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School.”

And she said,

“While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”

And I want to say tonight — I want to say tonight that I too am happy that I didn’t sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream, and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1961, when we decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation in inter-state travel.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.

If I had sneezed — If I had sneezed I wouldn’t have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been down in Selma, Alabama, to see the great Movement there.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering.

I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.

The sneezing story and the references to some of the greatest moments of his career take on an additional layer of meaning when we know what happened to King the day after he delivered this speech

After our visit to the MLK Center we jumped on the bus for a short ride to The Varsity, Atlanta’s famous fast-food restaurant.  (I highly recommend two hot dogs, onion rings, and a frosty orange!).  We later learned The Varsity has its own story of segregation and race, but I will have to save that for another post.

We ended the day at Georgia State University where we heard a lecture from historian Glen Eskew, author of the award-winning But For Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle.  Eskew covered a lot of ground, but focused mainly on the role that the New Deal played in bringing a degree of wage equality, consumer choice, and economic security to many Blacks in the South.  These expanding opportunities for Blacks made the American South more “dynamic” and ultimately led them to pursue civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s.  Eskew also talked about Coretta Scott King’s efforts to preserve her husband’s legacy through the King Center and the difficulty in sustaining museums related to the Civil Rights Movement.

As Eskew finished his lecture, Juanita Jones Abernathy walked into the lecture hall. This was a real treat.  Juanita and her husband Ralph Abernathy were leaders of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-1956. (Ralph was the pastor of Montgomery’s First Baptist Church).  There is so much to say about Juanita Abernathy’s remarks that I have decided to save them for a post that I will publish later today.  Stay tuned.

 

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Caroline and Juanita Jones Abernathy

Today we are in Albany, Georgia.  More to come.  In the meantime, here are a few more pics:

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The tomb of Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King

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The birth home of Martin Luther King

 

The Amazing Juanita Jones Abernathy

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Abernathy at Georgia State University speaking to the travelers on the Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights Tour

The highlight of Day 2 of the Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights Tour was meeting Juanita Jones Abernathy, one of the participants in, and organizers of, the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott.  Juanita was marred to Ralph Abernathy, the pastor of Montgomery’s First Baptist Church and a famous civil rights activist in his own right. Ralph died in 1990 at the age of 64.

Juanita talked about the important role played by pastors (and pastor’s wives) during the bus boycott. Because pastors like her husband Ralph were not paid by the state, and thus were not “part of the system,” they were free to organize on behalf of Rosa Parks without the threat of losing their jobs.

She also talked about how the Abernathy children and the King children integrated an Atlanta elementary school sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s.  (Her son Kwame was with her at the lecture).  I found it interesting that she always referred to the kids as “my kids” or “Coretta’s kids.”When it came to the education of the children, the mothers were in charge.

I tried to write down some of the best lines of the talk.  They are as close to verbatim as possible:

  • “My husband Ralph used to say ‘there was no color on the bullets we were dodging in Germany during World War II…We were citizens fighting to defend democracy. Why couldn’t we enjoy it at home.'”
  • Donald Trump wants to “roll back the clock. But we aren’t going back.”
  • “My Lord and savior Jesus Christ was not violent. I didn’t learn non-violence from Ghandi, I learned it from Jesus.”
  • “Aren’t you glad you’re in America?  Lord I thank you for the United States of America and that we are not victims of the destruction going on around the world today.  I am blessed to live in the United States of America.”
  • “[The Civil Rights Movement in] Alabama saved America from itself.”
  • “The right to vote is a blood ballot. People died for that right.”
  • “We are a Christian nation. That’s what America is built on.”
  • “If there’s any such thing as going through hell while still alive, we went through it.”
  • When [the Abernathy’s and the King’s] lived on the west side of Chicago in the slums, we came from ‘down South’ to ‘up South.’ But both Souths had the same problems.”
  • “I hear all this stuff about King.  I saw a documentary on Georgia Public Television called ‘America since King.’ No, it was the Civil Rights MOVEMENT. It was not associated with just one man.”
  • “Today, all you have to do is write down your name and address and you can vote.  It doesn’t matter if you are white, black, native American, or Indian.  Voting applies to everyone, but there was a price to be paid to get it.”
  • “Young people will burn America down before they let Donald Trump take us back [in time]. They don’t understand non-violence, no one is teaching the young people “non-violence.”
  • “‘Make America Great Again’ is when blacks had no rights.”
  • “We weren’t trying to get above, we were just trying to get equal.”
  • “I love America with all of the mess.  We still are the greatest nation in the free world.  When I see that flag I salute it.”

What fascinated me the most about Juanita Jones Abernathy’s talk was how much it was grounded in appeals to common and universal values.  She talked about her love of country (or at least the ideals set forth at the founding).  She drew heavily upon a shared Christian faith as a source for non-violence.

She even described the United States as a “Christian nation.”  This was not unusual during the Civil Rights movement.  As I argued in chapter three of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?the Civil Rights movement made constant appeals to the Judeo-Christian values that they believed the nation was founded upon.  The best example of this is King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail when he says:

One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Abernathy also described the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 in universal terms. Poverty affected all races–it was a universal problem and needed to be addressed this way.  She talked the same way about voting rights.

The appeal to ideals that brought together all human beings seems to be quite different from the identity politics we see today in most discussions of race in America. This morning on the bus we listened to a King sermon that referenced Washington Irving, Thomas Carlyle, and the Founding Fathers.  Elsewhere King referenced Augustine, Aquinas, Paul Tillich, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, to name a few.  King assumed that his audience–both black and white–were familiar with some of these authors.  Would such appeals be effective today? I don’t think so.  King lived before what historian Daniel Rodgers has described as the “Age of Fracture.”

The more I listen to folks like Abernathy and King the more I realize that the “past is a foreign country.”  But as we think about race relations in America today I wonder if the past of Abernathy and King is a usable one.