Names such as Hosea Williams, Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson Sr. C.T. Vivian, Joseph Lowery and Coretta Scott King will forever be etched in the memory of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as soldiers in the fight against racial discrimination. Before his assassination on April 4, 1968 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, King is seen speaking over a second-floor balcony. By King’s side were Williams, Jackson and Abernathy. These three along with Andrew Young were and still considered to be King’s closest allies.
Ralph Abernathy 1926-1990
As Martin Luther King’s closest friend and advisor, Abernathy became a influential figure in the civil rights struggle during the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama.
“Abernathy infused his audiences with new life and ardor,” King wrote in “Stride Toward Freedom.” “The people loved and respected him as a symbol of courage and strength.”
Abernathy was born in 1926 to William L. and Louivery Bell Abernathy of Linden, Alabama. His father, the son of a slave, supported his family of 12 as a farmer while serving as deacon of the local Baptist church.
Abernathy graduated from Linden Academy and then served overseas with the United States Army toward the end of World War II. He was ordained as a Baptist minister in 1948, and two years later he received a bachelors in mathematics at Alabama State College (now Alabama State University) in Montgomery. He later earned a masters in sociology from Atlanta University.
While a graduate student at Atlanta University, Abernathy heard King preach at Ebenezer Baptist Church. In his autobiography, Abernathy recalled “burning with envy” at King’s “learning and confidence,” and he immediately saw King as a “man with a special gift from God.”
Abernathy introduced himself to King that day and their friendship began.
A few years later in 1952, a young Abernathy became pastor of Montgomery’s First Baptist Church. He was active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and chaired the State Sunday School and Baptist Training Union Congress’ committee on the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. He issued a report urging ministers to fight against segregation, writing, “Our business as Christians is to get rid of a system that creates bad men.”
Shortly after the arrest of Rosa Parks on Dec. 1, 1955, E. D. Nixon contacted Abernathy to discuss the idea of a bus boycott.
Abernathy, King and other community leaders met to create a new organization to guide the protest movement. At Abernathy’s suggestion, the new organization was called the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA).
The different styles of Abernathy and King combined to create an effective and inspiring message at the boycott’s weekly mass meetings. While King emphasized the philosophical implications of nonviolence and the movement, Abernathy helped energize the people into positive action. “Now,” he would tell the audience following King’s address, “Let me tell you what that means for tomorrow morning.”
In January 1957, shortly after Abernathy’s home and church were bombed, Abernathy joined with King and African-American leaders to form the organization that was eventually called the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
The organization was designed to support the movement to peacefully implement the Supreme Court’s decision outlawing bus segregation by coordinating the action of local protest groups throughout the South.
King was elected president of SCLC, and Abernathy became financial secretary-treasurer.
In November 1959, King announced to his Dexter Avenue Baptist Church congregation that he would be moving to Atlanta to be closer to SCLC headquarters. In January 1960, King officially announced Abernathy as the new president of the MIA: “[Abernathy] has already proven his ability as a leader … and I predict that under his leadership, Montgomery will grow to higher heights and new and creative things will be done.”
Abernathy struggled with meeting the commitments of the MIA and his ministry in Montgomery and SCLC in Atlanta. He helped remedy the problem by recommending that West Hunter Baptist Church in Atlanta hire Abernathy in late 1960.
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King informed a member of the church, “Ralph is a dynamic and able preacher, an exceptionally good administrator and organizer, and a great community leader. I am sure that he could give to West Hunter a type of leadership that would both double its membership and its spiritual impact in the community.”
Abernathy accepted the position and moved to Atlanta in 1961.
King and Abernathy provided a great deal of support to one another. The two were jailed together 17 times. Abernathy recalled that their time in jail together allowed them to “make plans and draw strength from one another.”
At King’s request, Abernathy became vice president of SCLC, because King knew that should he die, Abernathy would be able to lead the organization.
After King’s assassination in 1968, Abernathy became SCLC’s president and followed through with the march that King had planned to lead in support of the Memphis sanitation workers. He also continued efforts to organize the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C.
After stepping down in 1977 from his position in SCLC, Abernathy made an unsuccessful bid for Congress. He remained pastor of West Hunter Baptist Church and formed the Foundation for Economic Enterprises Development, an organization designed to improve Black economic opportunities.
A year before his death, Abernathy’s relationship with King was hit with controversy as civil rights leaders demanded he retract implications in his book that King had sexual encounters with women on the night before he was killed.
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A Memphis woman said in an interview published that she was with Abernathy and King that night, and she disputed part of the account in Abernathy’s autobiography, ″And The Walls Came Tumbling Down.″
In Abernathy’s book, King’s one-time top aide stated King spent parts of the night before his death alone with two different women and physically fought with a third.
In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Abernathy rejected suggestions by some of the civil rights leaders that two strokes and brain surgery might have impaired his memory. ″I am most surprised anybody would think I’m mentally incompetent,″ he said.
Abernathy has said that he did not include passages about King’s extramarital affairs out of malice, but felt he needed to address the issue since it had been discussed in previous biographies.
“I loved Martin Luther King more than a brother,” Abernathy said. “I would never do it to injure him.”
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Hosea Williams 1926-2000
According to insiders and historians, Williams described himself as the “thug” of the SCLC. King, however, affectionately called him “my wild man, my Castro,” in recognition of Williams’ skills as a protest organizer.
Williams, who was born in Attapulgus, Georgia, to a blind, unmarried teenage mother, moved on his own at the age of 14 to Tallahassee, Florida, where he worked odd jobs for three years before returning to Georgia.
When the United States entered World War II, Williams enlisted in the Army, working his way up to staff sergeant in an all-Black unit. He was reportedly wounded by shrapnel and spent over a year recovering in a British hospital.
Once back in the U.S., Williams graduated from high school, earned his bachelors at the historically Black College, Morris Brown College in Atlanta, and later his masters from Atlanta University.
According to the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, upon moving to Savannah, Williams joined the NAACP and began grassroots organizing. He became widely known for giving speeches against segregation in a public park during his daily lunch break.
By 1960 he had become the president of the Southeastern Georgia Crusade for Voters, an affiliate of SCLC. The following year he spoke on the power of the ballot at SCLC’s annual meeting. At SCLC’s board meeting in 1962 King personally recommended that Williams join the SCLC executive board, an honor Williams accepted.
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“It’s important to remember that Mr. Williams made a very valuable contribution to the civil rights movement in Savannah even before he began working for Dr. King,” said Emory University historian David J. Garrow to the Los Angeles Times.
In 1962 Williams began positioning for a seat on the Georgia NAACP national board. When NAACP director Roy Wilkins told Williams that he could advance no further in the NAACP because of his family background, Williams complained to King. King supported Williams and when he was arrested in Savannah the following summer, offered SCLC’s backing “100 percent.”
“Hosea was one of the most complex people we had in the movement [because] he came from a truly deprived background,” said the Rev. C.T. Vivian to the Times. Vivian was a former SCLC staff member.
In 1964, SCLC voted Williams “Man of the Year,” and King hired him on a trial basis to work in St. Augustine, Florida, where on the eve of the city’s 400th anniversary, SCLC was collaborating with local activists to protest segregation.
There, Williams taught nonviolence to volunteers, led marches, and was arrested along with his wife and two of their five children.
Later that year Williams formally joined SCLC staff as the director of voter registration. King personally raised funds for his salary, writing a potential donor that Williams’ “talents need a broader horizon [than Savannah], and his energies need to be made available to other communities across this nation.”
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One such community was Selma, Alabama, where SCLC began work in January 1965, supporting local voting rights activists. After three months of groundwork, Williams and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader John Lewis jointly led the first attempt at a Selma to Montgomery March.
This effort became known as “Bloody Sunday” after state troopers and local law enforcement officers brutally beat the demonstrators as they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. King came to Selma to lead a successful march three days later.
In March 1965 King named Williams the head of SCLC’s Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE) Project, where he oversaw a half-million-dollar budget and several thousand volunteers. Promoted to the role of southern project director by 1966, Williams toured projects, often rallying supporters with King, and walked in the March against Fear to protest the shooting of James Meredith.
“I started crying because I realized I couldn’t tell them the truth,” Williams wrote in the civil rights book “My Soul Is Rested” by Howell Raines. “I guess I made them a promise I’d bring them back someday.” Years later, he did. “That was one of the happiest days of my life,” he wrote in “The Way It Was in the South.”
In November 1966 King asked Williams to come to Chicago, where SCLC was working with the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations on the Chicago Campaign. Although Williams did not want to leave the South, he grudgingly complied and moved north to run the campaign’s voter registration project.
Williams returned to the South to work as field director for SCLC’s Poor People’s Campaign in early 1968. He attended multiple rallies a day, flying with King from town to town to build support for the Washington campaign.
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At King’s urging, Williams and other SCLC staff joined King in Memphis to support the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike that April. He was with King at the Lorraine Motel when King’s assassination took place.
After King’s death Williams became executive director of SCLC, a position he held until 1979, when he was forced to leave because of differences within SCLC. Williams entered mainstream politics, winning election to the Georgia General Assembly in 1974.
After a decade of service, he resigned and his wife Juanita won his seat. Williams was later elected to the Atlanta City Council and then became the DeKalb County commissioner.
In 1987 Williams led the largest civil rights march in Georgia history into all-white Forsyth County, approximately 30 miles north of Atlanta.
Hundreds of Ku Klux Klan members and white supremacists greeted an estimated 20,000 marchers, including King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, and Jackson, Young, Abernathy, late comedian-activist Dick Gregory and Benjamin Hooks.
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At the time of his death in 2000, the late Julian Bond, former chairman of the board the NAACP, remembered Williams as “a great warrior.”
“Among everything else, Hosea Williams was an organizer and an agitator,” Bond said. “Today’s activists have much to learn from his life. We will not soon see his like again.”