When the stories of the civil rights movement are told, they are usually centered around men, men so iconic they are recognized by first name only: Martin, Ralph, John, Andrew among them.
The women were always there, side-by-side with the men or working behind the scenes to help dismantle this country’s system of legal racial segregation and subjugation of African Americans. But in the retelling of those battles, only a few women’s names have become rote: Rosa, Coretta, Fannie Lou, and sometimes, Ella.
Yet the narrative of the American civil rights movement is incomplete without the name, Juanita Abernathy.
In the 2014 film, “Selma,” an account of “Bloody Sunday” and the pivotal 1965 battle for voting rights in the small Alabama town, no actress portrays Juanita. There is only a brief reference to her by the actors portraying Martin Luther King Jr., and Ralph David Abernathy Sr., as they laugh before being served a meal. It’s a respectful name check, but one that doesn’t begin to explore the role Juanita Odessa Jones Abernathy played.
She was the wife of Ralph Abernathy, who led the movement with King. To look at her role only through the adjacency of marriage to a leader misses the power and importance of the part women played in the struggle’s success. From the days before the Montgomery bus boycott through to the desegregation of Atlanta Public Schools and the oversight of Atlanta’s mass transit system, MARTA, Juanita Abernathy was always there, pushing along the front lines.
She died Thursday at Piedmont Hospital surrounded by her three surviving children and four grandchildren. The family has not released a cause of death.
If asked, Juanita Abernathy would never tell her age. Various news reports have given it as 87, 88 or 89.
“If a woman tells her age, she’ll tell anything,” she said in several interviews over the years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
When asked their mother’s age late Thursday, her son, Kwame, and daughters, Donzaleigh Abernathy and Juandalynn Abernathy, repeated their mother’s adage. Kwame said they didn’t know her age because she would never tell even them. With her signature gold bangles on her wrists, her gray hair always curled and just so, and pinkish-red lipstick on her lips, it was difficult to tell exactly how old she was when she was out in public or relaxing in her west Atlanta home. Public records, however, indicate that Juanita Abernathy was 89 years old, just three months shy of what would have been her 90th birthday in December.
“My mother always said, people would judge you according to the way you were dressed, so she dressed elegantly and she was always elegant,” Donzaleigh said.
The story of Southern African-Americans of her era is often told through the prism of disenfranchisement: landless black people who grew up with little and lived a life of sharecropping and unrewarded toil. That was not Juanita Abernathy’s experience. She was born to a family of prosperous, rural dairy farmers and cattle owners in Perry County, Ala. She often spoke of the broad porch and polished wooden floors of the large farmhouse she and seven siblings lived in with their parents, Ella Gilmore Jones and Alexander Jones. Because she was younger than one sister who attended then Selma University, in Selma, she was sent as a child to live with that sister and attended boarding school on the campus from at least kindergarten through high school. It’s where she learned to fight injustice.
“It was harder being a black woman in rural Alabama than being a black man in New Orleans, Montgomery or Atlanta,” said former U.N. Ambassador and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young. “Because they experienced a lot more of the pressure as women, they were all the more determined to keep us going. It was our wives that bore most of the scars and burdens.”
In her late husband’s autobiography, “And the Walls Came Tumbling Down,” Juanita Abernathy’s early strong will and sense of dignity is described in a story of an encounter with a grocery store cashier near her hometown. The teen-aged Juanita demanded the white cashier have a clerk, who was also white, take her groceries to the car as he had just done for a white female customer. When the cashier said that service was reserved for whites, Juanita reportedly said, “Well, if the boy can’t take my groceries to the car, then I guess he’ll just have to put them back on the shelves.”
Her boldness earned the family threats from local whites who didn’t think she knew her place, but the story also endeared her to Ralph Abernathy Sr. They met around the late 1940s. According to their children, they got married in August 1952. Thus, began their partnership.
The couple moved to Montgomery, where Ralph Abernathy was pastor of First Baptist Church. One evening about 1954, the couple played host to a new pastor brought in to lead Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr. That night, Juanita Abernathy made a meal of chopped sirloin steak, green beans, sweet potatoes and rolls for the young, incoming pastor, according to Abernathy’s autobiography. It was the first of many meals the Abernathys would share with King and his wife, Coretta Scott King.
Some downplay the role women played in making food during the movement. Even Juanita Abernathy often said she did not want to be known as “the cook of the movement.”
She had a business degree from Tennessee State University, was a high school teacher and secretary of the Alabama NAACP chapter. But those dining room and kitchen tables were the places where strategy for fighting Jim Crow laws was hatched. Women such as Abernathy and Scott King often had seats when the conversation took place in their homes. This was the case with planning the Montgomery bus boycott, which was designed in part over food at Juanita Abernathy’s dining room table.
She designed the business strategy to help keep the boycott of the segregated public transit system going, a boycott designed by a circle of activist pastors and organizers and triggered into action by Rosa Parks. The overall strategy also helped domestic workers get rides to and from their jobs cleaning white people’s homes.
But just as Montgomery provided triumph, those early years in Alabama also served tragedy and danger. The couple lost their first child, Ralph Abernathy Jr., days after he was born. In the months after the boycott, in an effort to break the growing protest movement, the Abernathys’ house in Montgomery was bombed one evening while Juanita Abernathy was home alone with her oldest daughter, Juandalynn, and pregnant with her youngest daughter, Donzaleigh. To this day, over the breakfast room table where she, her husband, and the Kings met and strategized even after they all moved to Atlanta, there hangs a black and white photo of the bombs’ carnage. Juanita Abernathy would often repeat what she said fire investigators told her the night of the bombing: that had the bomb been set just a few feet over, it would likely have exploded the main gas line to the house. Her husband’s church was bombed the same night.
She wasn’t deterred.
“She endured the terrorism of harassing telephone calls to her home, threats on her life and her husband’s life, the doubts of naysayers who feared the movement would fail, the sleepless nights of worry and suffered the slings and arrows of hate that were a part of non-violent change in this country,” said U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, one of the last remaining civil rights leaders.
Juanita Abernathy was there for the March on Washington and walked near the front of the line in the third and successful voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. She was in nearly the same position 50 years later during the commemorative march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, led by then-President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.
Once the Abernathys and Kings moved to Atlanta in the early 1960s, her activism continued. Just as she had had a private school education, she wanted the same quality education for her children. In the early 1960s, Atlanta’s premier private schools were still segregated. Her daughter, Donzaleigh said Friday, she remembers that when her mother couldn’t crack the private schools, she searched for the best public school. She was told the Spring Street Elementary school, the current site of the Center for Puppetry Arts, was the place where Georgia Tech professors sent their children. So Donzaleigh, Juandalynn and their late brother, Ralph Abernathy III were among the first to integrate the school along with at least two of the King children. Juanita Abernathy made sure her children later studied in Europe and pushed to make sure they could attend opera performances here in Atlanta. Her daughter Juandalynn later become an opera singer in Europe and Donzaleigh an actress in Hollywood.
“With grit and grace, Juanita Abernathy served tirelessly for the cause of freedom and justice,” said Bernice King, chief executive officer of the King Center. “She was one of the few remaining members of Dr. King’s inner circle.”
Juanita Abernathy joined the board of MARTA 11 years after her husband’s death in 1990. She served until about two years ago.
In her final hours, her family surrounded her. On Friday, her home, which she would often say had been bugged during the height of the movement, was flooded with mourners as family and friends came to celebrate the warrior’s role she played. There was food and there was laughter at the kitchen table where a modern freedom struggle took shape.
Abernathy is survived by her children: Juandalynn R. Abernathy, Donzaleigh Abernathy, and Kwame L. Abernathy. She is also survived by her grandchildren: Ralph David Abernathy IV, Christiana A. Abernathy, Micah Alexander Abernathy and Soeren-Niklas Haderup, and her older sister Eloise Percival. She was preceded in death by the Rev. Dr. Ralph David Abernathy Sr., and her sons, Ralph David Abernathy Jr., and the Reverend Dr. Ralph David Abernathy III.
Services are planned for September 23, other details are not yet set.
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