Ralph David Abernathy and the Civil Rights Movement

I’ve been reading And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, the autobiography of Ralph David Abernathy, Martin Luther King Jr’s best friend and right hand man. It’s a remarkable insight into Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement. But it’s also a remarkable insight into the machinations behind black Southern Baptist churches in the 1950’s…a hotbed of politics, backstabbing and skullduggery. (yes yes, “and how is that different to now?” I hear you say.)

Anyway, here’s a story he tells about MLK Jr. before he came to Montgomery:

I was beginning to hope that he would be called to Dexter Avenue, though I knew enough about the politics of the congregation to know how unlikely that would be.

The chairman of the Board of Deacons had already made his choice, and the man he had anointed had preached a highly commendable sermon two weeks earlier. The rest of the board had concurred with the chairman’s judgment, and most of the congregation was likewise in agreement. Martin Luther King’s visit was no more than a formality in which everyone had to participate because the clerk of the church, Robert Nesbit, had insisted Martin be invited…Martin…was at his best, and at his best no one was more learned and eloquent.

His topic was “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” and when he was finished, the congregation was in awe of him…the deacons who had been so certain in their decision before the service began were now just as certain that this new man was sent to them by heaven. The chairman of the board pounded the table and reminded them that they had already made a decision. They replied that it was their prerogative to change their minds. Besides, they pointed out, no final vote had been taken. The chairman insisted that they ratify the earlier decision immediately, and the board said they were not prepared to make such a move – not after hearing the three dimensions of a complete life.

They argued all afternoon about what to do and finally struck a compromise. The earlier candidate would be invited to preach a second sermon, after which the board would make their final decision. With that they adjourned.

The following Sunday the chairman’s candidate returned for a second appearance in the pulpit. He had been briefed about the nature of the situation, as was clear from the topic of his sermon, published on the bulletin board outside the church: THE FOUR DIMENSIONS OF A COMPLETE LIFE.

That fourth dimension did him in. By the time he was finished, the deacons and congregation knew they wanted Martin. When the chairman was confronted with this unanimity of opinion, he gave in and Martin got the call.

Hahahaha. I found that hilarious. This next one, though, I found much, much less hilarious. David Abernathy is the minister at the First Baptist Church, but has been called away to a meeting in Atlanta when he gets a phone call from his wife saying their house had been bombed (with her and the children in it). Luckily none of them were harmed. He says this of Juanita’s (his wife) story:

I found one detail of the story particularly chilling: her account of what had happened while we were talking on the telephone the second time. As she had been huddled in our bedroom, talking to me, suddenly the sky had flashed, and then she had heard a distant blast.

“What’s that?” Juanita had asked, trembling with renewed terror.

A nearby policeman had looked down at his watch. Then looked back at her with a frozen face.

“That would be your First Baptist Church,” he had said.

She had stared for a moment into the coldest eyes she had ever seen, and suddenly the full horror of the situation had dawned on her. The police had known all along. They were in on the plans. There would be no real investigation and no one would be arrested or indicted. And the same would have been true had she and the baby died.

Yikes. It’s easy to glamorise the Civil Rights movement in some ways, but stuff like this must have been beyond bearable. Especially when you consider that the Montgomery Bus Boycott was over and won at this point. The bombings were pure retributive malevolence.

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