Ralph Abernathy’s And The Walls Came Tumbling Down

The Civil Rights Movement in the United States is the topic of heated debates even nowadays. One of the brightest and most meaningful figures of that time was Martin Luther King whose activity has changed the course of history.

Unfortunately, his personality is a mystery due to the lack of information about him. Ralph David Abernathy in his book And the Walls Came Tumbling Down reveals some mysterious facts about the Civil Rights Movement and Luther King Personality. Ralph and Martin were good friends and partners in life, so this book presents unique facts recollected by King’s friend. It is an autobiography with all details and sometimes to severe truth about Abernathy and Luther’s weaknesses. Because of this “bald truth” different researchers sharply criticized Abernathy. However, the author himself stated that the main aim of the book was “to show how life was lived during the era of Jim Crow” and the real life, especially at such times, cannot consist only of bright and happy moments and experiences.

Ralph Abernathy had no fear to describe all the painful and even shameful moments of the Civil Right Movement, together with “spicy” details of Martin Luther King’s sexual life. On the one hand, such descriptions destroy dignity and holiness of these events and personality of Luther King, on the other hand Abernathy creates a realistic background for his autobiography. Ralph, without any doubt, was Luther’s closest friend, it was he who headed SCLC (the Southern Christian Leadership Conference) after Luther’s death, it was he who helped Luther to organize the movement and wake up people’s mind.

Some historians, and Taylor Branch is among them, do not treat Abernathy as a serious historian, but rather as a clown and incompetent personality, however, facts and thoughts in his book And the Walls Came Tumbling Down prove the opposite thing: he is not just aware of facts and personalities he is writing about, moreover, he tells the story of his own life, sufferings and experience. Description and details about his childhood help us to realize how he chose this way and why he had so much in common with Martin Luther King. He experienced racism, segregation and humiliation on his own skin and he was only one of millions. Now he does not want children and grandchild to forget this, maybe, painful but real history. He writes in the introduction: “after a few years people tend to forget their past”¦ I find that idea a little frightening, particularly when I see so many blacks who neither remember nor understand their past. If we are to survive and prosper as a people, we cannot forget who we are or where we came from.”[1]

Abernathy’s description of his childhood presents the brightest and the most touching part of the book. He was born in the far away South in the state of Alabama. Hopewell was a wonderful place for him with its nature, neighbors and strong will to life. However, at those times there were two problems that did not allow to enjoy all the pleasures of life, these were official segregation and lack of respect from the whites’ side.

Abernathy in his autobiography allows us to understand that abolishment of slavery did not resolve the problem of racism and discrimination. Intolerance of the people toward other people and feeling of superiority, where some believed that some definite group of people can be regarded as chosen and superior by birth, did no disappear in the United States after the abolishment of slavery. Race still created a big abyss in the relations between the black and white population of the country. The slavery was cancelled but a new social model has not been built yet and African-Americans had to find their way to survive and their place in the social ladder. A lot of them had to do the same work as being slaves. The period of Reconstruction included global changes in the political, social and economical structure of the society and the way the African-Americans fitted there now. After 1877 the liberties of Black were restricted again. White Southern Democrats took control from Republicans and the achievements of the Reconstruction were deprived. The Supreme Court was also involved into this process. A black man was imprisoned in Louisiana in 1892 just for sitting in the white section of the train car. Later, in 1896 Jim Crow’s laws were legalized by the famous Plessy v. Ferguson case.

Jim Crow is a name of the system of laws which fixed the racial discrimination and supreme attitude to the African-Americans. Moreover, it has become more than a system of laws. It has become a way of life. Jim Crow laws represented the legitimization of anti-Black racism and covered the period between 1877 and the mid-1960s. The Jim Crow system stated that the white race was superior to the black race, sexual relations between Blacks and Whites would produce a mongrel race which would destroy America. This system also demanded to keep the blacks on the bottom of the social stratification by any means and to use forth if necessary to keep this separation. Jim Crow signs (such as “exit\sets\facilities for white only”) were put everywhere and Abernathy give vivid examples from his own life. Prisons, hospitals, schools, churches, cemeteries were separated.

Ralph started feeling racial segregation from the early childhood. The white part of population always insisted on unique rights: to have separate drinking fountains in the squares and own entrance at the post. African-Americans, and Abernathy parents among them, were never called “Mister” or “Missis”. For Ralph his family was always a subject of respect and proud despite the fact that his grandparents were slaves: “In Marengo County during the first half of the twentieth century, the name ”˜Abernathy’ meant integrity, responsibility, generosity, and religious commitment–and it came to mean that largely through the life and testimony of the black Abernathys”¦ So I feel no shame in going by a last name to which my father and mother brought such character and dignity. It was their name.

They did not just borrow it from a long-dead white man. They paid for it with their exemplary lives and therefore owned it outright when they passed it along to me.”[2]   Nevertheless, these small humiliations of his family and friends pushed him to active actions in the 1950s. It was the time when he got acquainted with Martin Luther King.

He was born in Atlanta and studied at Morehouse College in Atlanta, at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, and at Boston University. He was very much interested in the nonviolent policy of Mahatma Gandhi and the effects it could have upon the social situation. In 1955 he got a Ph.D. in theology. He was one of the youngest men, who received the Nobel Peace Prize award for the promotion of nonviolence and equal handling of all races. He was famous for his emotional and provocative public speeches. Due to his unique oratorical skills and techniques used, he managed to influence the audience and clearly present his arguments and Abernathy proves it in his book.

He could be hardly compared to other black preachers. In reality he was looking for the religious faith, able to correspond to intellectual issues. He did his best to build not only blind faith persuasions, but sophisticated bonds of rational and emotional arguments. Some critics stated that King possessed a unique charisma, which he used in order to make an impression upon his audience, in fact he used it only in combination with different forms of intellectual and political leadership. Abernathy states that King had a talent to charm people using his peaceful but strong voice.

Martin Luther King was the author of a number of speeches and letters, one of the most famous was his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. Officially it was a response to the letter of criticism, wrote by eight clergymen of high rank, for Martin Luther King. In reality, the audience of the letter was rather the “white moderate”, or middle class people of America. King saw the key to the success of the civil rights movement in America exactly in enlisting support from this majority group. In his response, King mentioned all the charges, which were made against him, discussing the main points of the matters. His letter proved to be very expressive due to the logical manner and emotional presentation of the facts and arguments. What is really remarkable about his prose, is that all the arguments were built in non-aggressive manner, this served as another guarantee of positive perception of his words and ideas. It is evident, that had he written his letter as an attack of the audience, the main purpose would be lost. Abernathy explores King’s polemic talent with then helped them in their reformist activity.

The letter became a perfect example of well-thought and natural combination of different rhetorical techniques. King uses classical narration structure, which consists of introduction, exposition, argument, rebuttal (confutation) and conclusion. In addition he links these five components of the letter with arguments from clergymen’s letter. He takes each point for clergymen’s letter separately and brings his arguments to defeat it. Salutation and first five paragraphs of the letter make an introduction. It serves several functions, such as summarizing author’s ideas about the topic, expressing his good will and describing background of the problem.

Abernathy vividly shows that he and King had different preconditions of their common activity: King wanted to change the world in a peaceful way, while Abernathy longed to prove his rights in his society. These so symbolic “Mister Abernathy” and “Misses Abernathy” were so meaningful to Abernathy and, in fact, did not only change the names but the attitude to people and style of life. In the book Abernathy recalls the starting point of the Civil Right Movement: one day Rosa Parks refused to stand up and give her seat in a local bus which was followed by the Montgomery bus boycott and the beginning of the Civil Right Movement. Abernathy involved Luther in this activity and the fight for equality started. Abernathy’s autobiography is a story “how a modest campaign for basic human decency somehow exploded into an out-of-control movement that, picking up a curious mix of causes and characters along the way, was perceived as a revolutionary challenge to the fundamental institutions and beliefs of the country and the world.”[3] Abernathy tells his readers what he experienced and what he came through together with his close friend Martin Luther on their way to equality.

However, as Abernathy notices in his autobiography, the movement did not appear only in Alabama but it spread all over the States and waked people’s minds and called them for protests and fight for their rights.

The movement reached its critical point by the 1965 when African-Americans started taking radical actions and act openly. Luther King died in 1968, three years later, not having seen the results of their activity. Abernathy notes that their great and high-flown goal was not realized as it was planned. Abernathy saw what the movement turned to be.

“Who were these hordes of angry, vindictive, anti-American, countercultural, drug-tripping aliens who had hijacked his and Martin’s movement? Of course they viewed Abernathy as an anachronism, and, although it is conveniently forgotten today, they also dismissed Dr. King as “De Lawd” whose day was past.” [4]   Both Abernathy and Martin Luther King were considered as reformists who created all conditions for revolution. Abernathy was frustrated by the consequences and stated that these were not their aims. Nevertheless, only the time showed the level of progress and meaning of Martin King and Ralph Abernathy’s activity.

Beginning from the 1960s national minorities staged a number of walkouts demanding equal civil rights. So called Affirmative Actions have been implemented by the government in order to guarantee equal rights and liberties for African Americans and white Americans. The government had nothing to do but to guarantee equal opportunities.

White companies, being afraid of governmental sanctions, beginning from the year 1960 had to provide Afro-Americans with working places. The 1960s are characterized by the enlargement of educational possibilities for national minorities and the occupation of Afro-Americans in management is easily explained in such a way. During the 1960s and 1970s college-educated Afro-Americans got business-related professions and managerial jobs. [5]

Black people were most employed in labor markets. The results of King and other people’s work can be shown on Marvin’s data. Marvin gives such a statistics: in the 1960s only 7 percent of black college graduates could become managers in comparison to 18 percent of white students, who got same positions. The next decade was more progressive: the percentage of black managers increased to 12 percent.[6] During the 1970s and 1980s the number of Afro-Americans who occupied managerial, executive and administrative jobs, increased at twice the rate of white graduates.

To sum up, Abernathy is his book And the Walls Came Tumbling Down gives his vision of the Civil Right Movement and  Martin Luther King, Jr. was a prominent leader of the American civil right movement, political activist and Baptist minister, mostly famous for his nonviolent social position.

[1]  Abernathy, Ralph. And the Walls Came Tumbling Down. New York: Harper & Row, 1989, p.119.


[2] Abernathy, Ralph. And the Walls Came Tumbling Down. New York: Harper & Row, 1989, p. 124.


[3] Remembering Martin Luther King, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, October 2002, p. 94.

[4] Neuhaus, Richard John. The Way of Revolutions, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, January 1999, 70.

[5] Marvin, Jones D. Race, Sex, and Suspicion: The Myth of the Black Male. Praeger Publishers, 2005.

[6] Ibib.

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