Following his military service, in 1948, Abernathy became an ordained minister while pursuing his education. He earned a mathematics degree from Alabama State College in 1950 and received a master’s degree in sociology from Atlanta University the following year. He then became pastor of the First Baptist Church in Montgomery and dean of students at Alabama State. He also married Juanita Odessa Jones; the two would have four children together.
The danger didn’t deter Abernathy. In 1957, he and King helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the most prominent of the civil rights organizations in the south. King was president and Abernathy eventually became vice president. A few years later, Abernathy hosted a rally for the Freedom Riders, black and white activists who traveled by bus to protest segregation in the South.
Later that year, when King took his civil rights efforts to Atlanta, Abernathy followed, working at the West Hunter Street Baptist Church. The two activists continued to organize protests, sit-ins, and marches. Abernathy was arrested with King 17 times and was always by King’s side, including when the civil rights leader was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Abernathy worked to keep King’s spirit alive and became president of the SCLC. He also spearheaded the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, which included a march on Washington that led to the creation of the Federal Food Stamps Program.
Ralph D. Abernathy died on April 17, 1990, in Atlanta, Georgia. He’ll always be remembered as King’s closest confidante and second in command. In fact, King himself said in his last speech, “Ralph David Abernathy is the best friend that I have in the world.”