Juanita Abernathy called her son, Ralph David Abernathy III, on Wednesday to remind him that he would have to celebrate on Saturday.
“I told him, ‘Boy, you have a big birthday coming up,’ and he told me, ‘Yeah, if I make it,’ and I said, ‘Oh, you’ll make it, you’ll be alright,’” Juanita Abernathy said.
Her son had faced many trials in his life and as the namesake of a civil rights legend, Ralph David Abernathy Sr.
Her son also carried a great weight.
Abernathy III knew what it was to be measured against a man who helped guide a movement that fundamentally changed a nation. Like so many other children of the movement, he knew that every stumble would be amplified, any misstep scrutinized.
He spent his life trying to live up to a name he inherited not only from his father but from a brother who died young, Ralph David Abernathy Jr. He went from child civil rights activist, to a state senator, to a preacher, to a man who gallantly fought cancer while trying to restore the legacy of his father.
But there were also bumps. He would leave office in scandal. He never became the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference after several attempts. He would go to jail for fraud.
Even so, “he was a fighter,” his brother, Kwame, said Thursday.
On Thursday, just two days shy of his 57th birthday, Ralph Abernathy III died of liver cancer.
Abernathy III was diagnosed with colon cancer five years ago, and revealed that he was hospitalized for several weeks last year after it had spread to his liver.
“I knew then that I couldn’t hide it any longer,” Abernathy III told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in February. “That was right around the time Jimmy Carter announced he had cancer, so that gave me encouragement.”
The cancer diagnosis made him look at his life and health in a new way, his mother and brother said. He saw food — how it’s grown, what kinds promote health — as a new civil rights battle, particularly for African-Americans.
“He would say, ‘We’re killing ourselves with food, the way we cook it, the way we eat it,’” Kwame Abernathy said.
His brother went out of his way to eat food that wasn’t genetically modified, cut out salt and processed sugar, and began eating more raw foods. The hope was that those big changes might help him defeat cancer.
“Everything in his life had changed,” Juanita Abernathy said.
Politics To Prison
Abernathy III’s political career began with great promise before being tarnished by scandal.
He was elected to the state House in 1988 at age 28, and went on to win a state Senate seat in 1992.
But in 1998 he was indicted on 35 counts of theft, forgery and other charges related to accusations that he used his office for personal gain.
In 2000 he was convicted of scheming to bilk the state out of $5,700 by filing false expense reports and was sentenced to four years in prison and six years on probation.
He was paroled in May 2001 after serving 14 months of the four-year term. But he violated his parole in September 2002 and was arrested after the Georgia Bureau of Investigation determined that he had swindled people by charging them a total of $35,000 to try to secure their relatives’ parole from prison.
After his release in October 2003, Abernathy III shied away from the limelight while working on what he called his new mission: restoring his father’s legacy.
Fighting For Father
Abernathy III had long contended that his father, Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest confidant, had been forgotten and neglected in history. In 1957, the elder Abernathy co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and became president in 1968 after King’s death.
In 1989, Abernathy Sr. published his memoirs, “And the Walls Came Tumbling Down,” in which he said that King entertained women in his hotel room on April 3, 1968 — the night before he was assassinated. Many people point to the book as a turning point on how Abernathy, who died in 1990, would come to be viewed.
“Nobody can define my father’s contributions based on two pages in a 600-page book. That would be ludicrous, ” Abernathy III said in February.
Before the critically acclaimed movie “Selma” came out in 2013, Abernathy III and family members argued that the Abernathy character was “grossly mischaracterized” as someone uneducated and more interested in eating than freedom.
“Every time Martin Luther King gave a speech, Ralph David Abernathy gave one. Every time Martin Luther King went to jail, Ralph David Abernathy was with him, ” Abernathy III said. “They have taken the work of two men and gave all the credit to Martin. My father and family never opposed it, but it wasn’t right.”
The character changed a bit, but never to the family’s full liking.
‘Take The Stairs’
In the past year, Abernathy III spent his time trying to raise $3.5 million to build a “freedom plaza” outside the West Hunter Street Baptist Church, an iconic landmark from the civil rights era where his father was pastor.
Abernathy III’s vision for the plaza included a 25-foot bronze monument dedicated to his parents, Ralph and Juanita Abernathy, Coretta and Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and John Lewis, and a wall featuring the names of all “freedom fighters” and Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff.
In January, the National Park Service announced official plans to begin exploring the possibility of making the old West Hunter Street Baptist Church a National Historic Site.
“Ralph David Abernathy III carried on (his father’s) legacy by serving the residents of Atlanta in the Georgia State Senate,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said. “He was known for his saying, ‘If the elevator to success is broken, take the stairs.’ His work ethic and his commitment to the ideals of his father meant he could not sit idly by when confronted with injustice, and he worked tirelessly throughout his career to protect children and strengthen families.”
‘Family Is Legendary’
Michael Julian Bond, an Atlanta councilman, is six years younger than Abernathy III, but he said they shared a special relationship because they both had fathers who were huge figures in the civil rights movement.
“It’s a peculiar blessing and a curse,” Bond said. “As a child, if you try and pursue that life people love you for it and they hate you for it. Some people look at you like you’ve crossed some kind of line.”
Atlanta City Councilman C.T. Martin said Abernathy III’s passing is a loss for everyone concerned about human rights. The councilman also said he was concerned about the future of the church and the plaza project.
“He was a longtime advocate for civil rights and human rights in our city,” Martin said. “He will be sadly missed.”
State Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, called Abernathy III, “A public servant to the end.”
“I’m so saddened,” Smyre said. “He was a longtime friend and my last encounter with him was on the church project. He came to see me and talk to me and some civil rights leaders about funding.”
U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, tweeted: “The Abernathy family is legendary in Georgia and the civil rights movement. My prayers are with them at this sad time.”
‘Gates Of Heaven’
Prayer and Scripture took on added significance as Abernathy III battled his illness.
Cancer had so weakened him that he wasn’t certain he could ever return to the pulpit. But on Valentine’s Day, he gathered his strength and returned to Lindsay Street Baptist Church. His sermon was reflective, one that examined where he’d been but also telegraphed what he knew was inevitable. He titled it, “Come, Before Winter.”
He told his congregation that plenty of people complain about life and the bad things that happened to them, but he wasn’t going to do that, said his wife, Annette Abernathy.
“I see that as his testimony to open the gates of Heaven,” Annette Abernathy said.
He is survived by his wife, mother and brother, his two sisters, Donzaleigh Abernathy and Juandalynn Abernathy, two sons, Ralph IV and Micah, and a daughter, Christiana.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.