How MLK’s right-hand man was ‘erased’ from history
By Leonard Greene
Moviegoers filling theaters this week to see “Selma,” the new docudrama about one of the key battles of the civil rights movement, may come across a name they don’t recognize.
That is an injustice.
The Rev. Ralph David Abernathy was a giant in the historic campaign for justice and equality, but history has treated him like a minor footnote.
As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s right-hand man and most trusted friend, Abernathy played a momentous role.
But the more the civil rights story is told, the more Abernathy’s role is reduced. The irony is that in the effort to chronicle the visionary struggle against injustice, an enormous one is being carried out.
Abernathy was the one King strategized with at night when the other aides were asleep. Most pictures of King show Abernathy at his side, at the White House with President Lyndon Johnson or in Selma at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Abernathy shared King’s dream — and most of his jail cells.
But Abernathy, who died in 1990, has never been forgiven for writing about the dalliances of an unfaithful King. For destroying the perfect-man myth, Abernathy has been relegated to the historical sidelines of a revolution he was instrumental in developing.
Abernathy’s fall from grace coincided with the publication of his 1989 autobiography, “And the Walls Came Tumbling Down.” In the book, Abernathy was writing about the walls of oppression in the guise of cruel Jim Crow laws.
But the ink on Abernathy’s new book was hardly dry when the walls started coming down on him. The author was called everything from a traitor to a sellout for a small section of print that weighed much more heavily than anything else.
Abernathy wrote more than 600 pages about his life, the movement, his family and his friendship with King. But the book will forever be remembered for three pages that helped destroy the man-myth of a moral leader.
Abernathy wrote that after King delivered his famous “Mountaintop” speech — the one that predicted his own death the next day — he spent part of the night with another woman, and maybe a second one.
And just like that, it was over. Four paragraphs later, Abernathy was writing about the catfish lunch he shared with King, the last meal the friends ever ate together.
Abernathy, his critics said, had stabbed his dead friend in the back and sold him out in exchange for a book contract.
“By making sensational claims about what happened in Memphis the night before King was assassinated, Abernathy appeals to the most prurient tendencies in current public life and gives comfort to the civil rights movement’s enemies, who would use anything to discredit the movement,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson, another King lieutenant, wrote in an op-ed at the time.
Former King aides were so incensed that they gathered at the Atlanta crypt of the slain civil rights leader to voice their anger. In a scathing statement, the group of mostly ministers, ordained by God to forgive, urged Abernathy to retract the account, and threatened to “rob you of your rightful place in history.”
Abernathy, who had taken over after King’s death, was already unpopular in some circles for his support — which he later retracted — of Republican President Ronald Reagan.
His biggest downfall, of course, was never measuring up to King, an impossible task for even the most charismatic of leaders.
Abernathy said he agonized over whether to include the account, but reasoned that the book would be more credible if it included it.
Abernathy said it was also important to de-sanctify the person he knew as a man. It’s important, he said, to know that King had frailties and faults like any other human being. He made mistakes, like all great leaders have, in and out of the Bible.
Martin Luther King is no lesser man for what Abernathy revealed. And history is better served by his truthfulness.
Lost in all the controversy was the book’s true mission: to provide a blueprint for a successful social protest campaign.
Abernathy correctly recognized that the struggle had not ended, and that he was giving his readers a lesson in how to organize a people’s movement.
While it was an older, seasoned Abernathy who penned the autobiography, the book reminds us that at the core of the struggle were a group of young, idealistic leaders who were winging it through a difficult time.
Abernathy’s story, like the movement he helped carry, inspires. There are few greater achievements in life.
That is the part that most people missed.
Leonard Greene, a Post reporter and columnist, is researching a book about the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy.