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The Robin to King's Batman. The Bullwinkle to his Rocky. The Sancho to his Don Quixote. That pal you can always depend on not to immediately turn around and ask out the person you've just admitted to having a crush on.
Dr. King said it best: "Ralph Abernathy is the best friend that I have in the world" (1.3).
Ralph Abernathy was Dr. King's best friend, but he was also a trusted advisor and a pillar of the Civil Rights Movement in his own right. And he had good reason to be: his grandfather was a slave (source). Think about that: imagine if your Grandma Josephine, instead of telling you stories about how she used to take the trolley downtown, told you stories about how she used to plow the fields alone because her siblings had all been sold.
Now, it's true that slaves had many different experiences, but the experience of being owned is never a good one. So you can imagine how this heritage affected young Ralph.
After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Abernathy became a Baptist minister, just like his father. Then he went and got a couple degrees—one in math, one in sociology.
As fate would have it, for his master's degree, Abernathy went to Atlanta University, which was in Bangor, Maine.
Wake up, you: it was in Atlanta. Anyway, he started his activism there, leading protests about lack of heat and hot water in the dorm and the crummy food in the cafeteria.
Some things never change.
Know what else was in Atlanta? Yes, World of Coca-Cola, but we're talking about Ebenezer Baptist Church, domain of one Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Not knowing what he was in for, Abernathy went to Ebenezer one Sunday in 1954 and heard his fellow preacher give a pretty righteous sermon. Pun intended. He felt himself "burning with envy" at King's "learning and confidence" and overall awesomeness, and believed him to be specially blessed by God (source).
Now, it can be easy to dislike someone we think is more talented than we are. But we can also see that person as someone to learn from and celebrate. Ralph Abernathy didn't give in to jealousy—not right away, at least. After church, he introduced himself to Dr. King. They became fast friends.
It's sometimes hard to know why certain people become such good friends. In the case of Ralph Abernathy and Dr. King, it was maybe because they shared certain ideals. Like Dr. King, Abernathy believed that "Our business as Christians is to get rid of a system that creates bad men" (source).
This is "Fight the Power." Break the system. Fix this world, don't wait for the next.
Which is exactly what Dr. King says preachers should do in "Mountaintop" (20–21).
And for years, it's what Dr. King and Ralph Abernathy did together. Some friends like to go to movies. Some like to play sports. Some like to overthrow hundreds of years of injustice. It's all about what you like.
It was Abernathy who named the Montgomery Improvement Association, inspired by that city's bus boycotts of 1955-56. (See our MLK analysis.) He was also a founding member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; King eventually named him vice president, trusting Abernathy to take over should he be killed. Ever shared a jail cell with a pal? Dr. K and Ralph A. spent a lot of time in jail together during their many civil rights adventures. There's not much to do in jail but think and talk. Maybe sing a little. It's not the ideal bonding experience, but it's a bonding experience nonetheless.
Throughout those long and difficult civil rights years, Abernathy and King and their families were inseparable. They supported each other. Abernathy felt they complemented one another as well. Note that that's not "complimented," although they did that, too—just check out the beginning of "Mountaintop."
Whereas King promoted his sweeping vision for the Civil Rights Movement, Abernathy saw himself as a detail-oriented planner. He writes that, while King "was talking about strategy (the broad, overall purpose of a campaign), I was thinking about tactics (how to achieve that strategy through specific action)" (source). Abernathy also had an easygoing, average-Joe personality that at times helped him communicate with people more readily than the lofty brainiac King.
These two guys kind of sound like each other's better halves, right? It's true: the Abernathy–King connection was deep. As one member of the SCLC put it, "Abernathy was the glue for Martin King's soul […] He gave him counsel, he gave him solace, he gave him perspective" (source).
Glue for the soul.
We're guessing that's like chicken soup for the soul, except, if you've ever tried to glue something with chicken soup, you know it's different.
Like the best of friends, Ralph Abernathy was there until the end. He was there in Memphis, convincing Dr. K people wanted to hear him speak and singing his praises to the audience.
He was there the next day as the march was being planned in the Lorraine Motel.
He was standing on the balcony with Dr. King when King was fatally shot; he recalls stooping down and cradling his friend's blown-open head in his hands and telling him, "Martin, this is Ralph. It will be all right. Everything is going to be all right" (source).
(It's completely acceptable to cry at this point, btw, even though we're totally not. *Choke*.)
Whether it was all right or it wasn't, Ralph Abernathy was there. He rode with King in the ambulance and stayed with him in the hospital until he died. He gave the eulogy at King's funeral. He was determined to keep King's legacy alive.
Now, we've painted a pretty rosy picture of the friendship between these two fellas. That's so you can get a sense of how they might have felt about each other.
But no relationship is perfect (we're looking at you, frenemy who knowingly bought the same dress we did and looks way better in it, ugh), and this one was no exception. People can be connected by a lot of different forces—affection, but also darker things like jealousy, exploitation, and dependence. And a relationship can look very different to the people who aren't in it.
After Dr. King was killed, Ralph Abernathy did indeed become president of the SCLC. Not everyone was pleased about that.
Not everyone agreed that he was the "glue" of anything. Some SCLC members felt that, if Abernathy was chicken soup, it was pretty watery and only for his own soul. There was dissent from the younger, more militant wing of the SCLC. They thought Abernathy was (and, brace yourself, this will sound harsh) a talentless, self-important hanger-on wannabe striver who had hitched his delusions of grandeur to Dr. King's star.
Rumor had it that King promoted Abernathy to SCLC VP solely to stop him from going "berserk with envy" after King received the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize (source). Although Ralph Abernathy might have been King's other half, his detractors believed those halves were, like, not even kind of equal. Which makes them…not halves, but whatever. They thought Abernathy was more of a sounding board. Or a crutch. A crutch that wanted to be famous.
The hostility against Ralph Abernathy intensified when, in his 1989 memoir, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, he publicly discussed Dr. K's habitual adultery. This might sound like some serious airing of dirty laundry, but Abernathy maintained that, c'mon, everybody already knew anyway.
This was news to people who did not already know anyway. But oh well.
Maybe Ralph Abernathy really did think he deserved as much renown as Dr. King. But then, since he recognized that King was extraordinary, maybe he knew he didn't and despised himself for it. Either way, maybe he was intensely jealous of Dr. K and was trying to elevate himself by tearing down his best friend. We all know a kid like that. Is it possible to love and hate someone at the same time?
Or maybe Ralph Abernathy really was the glue—a steadfast and insightful friend and advisor. Maybe everyone else was jealous that Ralph Abernathy was close to MLK and they were trying to tear Ralph Abernathy down.
Oy, our head hurts.
Bottom line, Shmoopers: people are hard to figure out. This just in, right?
Whatever their true relationship was, after MLK died, Abernathy continued his friend's work. A few days after King's murder, he led another march on behalf of the Memphis sanitation workers. The following month, he organized a march on Washington for the Poor People's Campaign, getting himself arrested (again) by refusing to abandon some wooden huts that his group built near the Capitol, "Occupy"-style. A few years later, he created the Foundation for Economic Enterprises Development, an organization to help the poor.
Abernathy's tenure as SCLC president was marked by opposition by the younger, more radical wing who questioned whether nonviolence was the most effective approach. The organization wasn't able to raise much money, and Abernathy resigned in 1977 after allegations of financial mismanagement. He ran unsuccessfully for congress that same year, and eventually went back to the full-time ministry in Atlanta, where he died in 1990 (source).
For his lifelong work in the Civil Rights Movement, Abernathy spent time in jail, had his home bombed by the KKK, mourned the assassination of his best friend, and saw many of his goals frustrated. On the upside, he saw the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act passed, got a pile of awards and honorary degrees, and had a highway in Atlanta named after him.
Worth it? We think he'd think so.