010924. ATLANTA. Juanita Jones Abernathy cq, widow of Reverend Ralph David Abernathy cq, fixes the tie of former US Ambassador Andy Young prior to a WSB-TV and League of Women Voters ‘fireside chat’ at the Fox Theatre. Coretta Scott King cq, wife of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. is in the middle. The ‘chat’, entitled ‘The Living Legends of the Civil Rights Movement’, included these three prominent civil rights participants along with Reverend Joseph Lowery cq and Reverend C.T. Vivian. The show will be broadcast at a later date. See Ernie Suggs story for more info. RICH ADDICKS/STAFF
Photo: RICH ADDICKS
Photo: RICH ADDICKS

Juanita Abernathy, civil rights icon, dies

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 pastor in 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.

John Lewis, Ralph Abernathy, Sr., Juanita Abernathy during the Selma to Montgomery campaign for Voting Rights in 1965. Lewis would later become a U.S. Congressman decades after surviving a brutal beating during the first attempted Selma to Montgomery march. Juandalynn, Ralph III and Donzaleigh Abernathy hold hands in the foreground. They were some of the many children on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement. (courtesy of Donzaleigh Abernathy)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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 insidious voter disenfranchisement 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 — in particular the Montgomery bus boycott — were hatched.

“When I started off in ‘55 in Montgomery, recognition and honor was nowhere in my mind,” Juanita Abernathy told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2013, when she was being honored by the Atlanta City Council. “I started when there were no cameras and no newspapers writing nice things about you, instead they were writing all sorts of ugly things. But we kept going. It wasn’t about us. It wasn’t about me. It has always been about right and righteousness. Justice and equality. Not just for me and my family, but for all of God’s children.”

Ralph David Abernathy died of a heart attack in 1990 at age 64.

080330 ATLANTA: Juanity Abernathy in a portrait session at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution photo studio in honor of the commemoration of the 40th Anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. Sunday, March 30, 2008. Pouya Dianat / AJC
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Juanita Abernathy, 89, continued working after the height of the movement and the deaths of many of its leaders, including serving on boards such as MARTA’s and the Fulton County Development Authority.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will be writing a fuller account of her life and influence.

Read and sign the online guestbook for Juanita Abernathy

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