Commentary Magazine


And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, by Ralph David Abernathy

Joshua’s Tale

And the Walls Came Tumbling Down.
by Ralph David Abernathy.
Harper & Row. 638 pp. $25.00.

Ralph David Abernathy’s autobiography has been subjected to a concerted and often uncivil attack by the civil-rights establishment, led by Benjamin Hooks of the NAACP. The ostensible reason is Abernathy’s unedifying account of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s activities during his last night on earth. Another reason is that, since King’s death in 1968, Abernathy has not been a team player. He has declined the office of a mere appendage to King who ought to have receded into the background after his death. He has insisted, instead, that he is Joshua to King’s Moses; in the biblical story, one recalls, it was under Joshua’s leadership that the walls of Jericho came tumbling down.

In the last few years we have been given several books combining the biography of King and the history of the civil-rights movement, notably David Garrow’s Bearing the Cross and Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters. Abernathy’s work deserves an honored place in this company even though it is a different sort of book: an autobiography written with sometimes embarrassing candor and an almost painful ingenuousness.

Of course, the story of Ralph David Abernathy is, in largest part, a story of the movement. “I was there from beginning to end,” he writes, “from the Montgomery bus boycott in the late autumn of 1955 to Memphis in the spring of 1968 to Washington in 1988. No one else experienced it all, so no one else can really tell the whole story from the viewpoint of an eyewitness.” And Abernathy is well aware that he is telling some things others believe should be passed over in silence. “But I believe,” he asserts, “everything that happens is valuable and should be preserved, filed away in its proper place, an essential part of the meaning of the universe, which only God can completely understand.”

The first three chapters are an exceptionally evocative depiction of black childhood and youth in the pre-civil-rights South. In Hopewell, Alabama, Abernathy was born one of twelve children to a fiercely independent father and a mother who is to him still the icon of strong love. They were farmers, prosperous by the measure of the time. Life turned around family and church, and the Abernathys were greatly respected by blacks and whites alike. “In my case there was never any discrepancy between what my parents taught me and the way they behaved themselves. They lived up to all expectations and kept all promises.”

It was in some ways a small world from which the leadership of the movement would arise. Abernathy, King, and Andrew Young all took their wives from neighboring Perry County, Alabama. And it was a world ever so much more tranquil and ordered by personal and communal virtues than anything they would know again. Indeed, critics of the civil-rights movement could misuse this book to suggest that the entire enterprise was a terrible mistake. Obviously, Abernathy does not think so, but his narrative bespeaks a powerful nostalgia for what cannot be retrieved. For example, and later rhetoric notwithstanding, the young Ralph did not think himself oppressed:

We didn’t sit around and brood about whether or not to go play with whites our age. We’d never met any and had no desire to. We were also perfectly content to drink out f our own water fountains and to enter and exit by doors marked “COLORED.” We were so secure in the honor accorded our family that we didn’t consider such practices demeaning or even important. If white people wanted their own fountains and doors, that was just fine with us.

Abernathy would come to realize when he moved beyond Hopewell as a soldier in World War II and then as a college student that many things were not just fine. “It was our destiny, our burden—not only as human beings but as black Americans—to live beyond the dignity of our father’s house, in a cold and hostile land some where east of Eden.” But he refuses to apologize for Eden, and will tolerate no impugning of what he learned there about dignity in adversity. By the late 60’s, when black nationalists were calling on African-Americans to divest themselves of their “slave names,” Abernathy would have none of it. “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 didn’t just borrow it from long-dead man. They paid for it with their exemplary lives and therefore owned it outright when they passed it along to me.”

It was, then, a good and decent man, possessed of a powerful sense of his own worth and adamant that others recognize that worth, the pastor of an important black church with a promising, if conventional, future, who in 1955 linked up with another black pastor in a protest over local bus regulations in Montgomery, Alabama, that propelled both of them onto the stage of world-historical drama. The more than 600 pages of And the Walls Came Tumbling Down is Abernathy’s effort to counter what he believes are the misunderstandings of what happened after Montgomery. He means misunderstandings about Martin Luther King, to be sure, but most of all misunderstandings about Ralph Abernathy and his part in the movement they led and that led them.

The chief misunderstanding, as Abernathy sees it, is that people thought his readiness to subordinate himself to King meant that he could be treated as a subordinate. Much of the book is self-serving to a fault, repeatedly telling us how much King depended on him, how he gave King some of his best ideas, and so forth. Not here, but in Garrow’s study we read of outrageous instances in which Abernathy pushed himself forward, deferring always to King but demanding from others a treatment equal to that accorded King. Many of us who were on the outer rings of King’s leadership circle in those days can attest to our embarrassment at Abernathy’s excessive and undignified insistence upon his dignity. But there was also justice in his plaint. When he succeeded King as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference he was keenly aware of the resentment felt by Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson, “both of whom,” he writes, “were ambitious.”

In truth, there was more than resentment; on the part of some, there was a frequently expressed contempt. One factor at play here, which the present book makes evident, is that by the time King died the movement he led had long since peaked. This movement extended from the Montgomery boycott in 1956 through the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Young, Jackson, Hosea Williams, James Bevel, and others were young men who for a few years had been caught up in a whirlwind of drama and publicity that understandably produced an addiction to excitement. It was satisfied in part by the sheer presence of King, but that changed after the fateful evening in Memphis, April 4, 1968. Former colleagues quickly turned into large and competing egos, desperately trying to contrive a continuation of the glory years. Abernathy seems to intuit the psychological dynamics at work, and he tries to be understanding. He is magnanimous even in describing Jesse Jackson’s brazen lies to the media about his place in the death scene on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

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A word should be said here about the passage that is the focus of controversy over this book. The plain reading of the text indicates that, on the night before he was killed, King had sexual relations with one, may be two, women and physically struck another woman who was angry at being neglected. Much has been written about King’s womanizing, and the additional charge of physical abuse will not enhance his reputation. For telling this story, Abernathy has been accused of treason against both King and the movement he led.

Only Ralph Abernathy knows why he included this episode. Perhaps it is because, as he says, “everything that happens is valuable and should be preserved,” leaving the final judgment to God. Perhaps, too, it is because he has an intense proprietary interest in King, especially during those last hours now enshrined in legend. Telling the story as he does emphasizes that these were his moments, moments fully understood by him alone, and certainly not by Benjamin Hooks who has claimed that he spent the final evening having dinner with King. Abernathy, in other words, is reclaiming the pieces of the prophet’s mantle which he believes others have tried to steal.

It is a measure of the relationship between the two men that Abernathy says he tried to warn King about his womanizing only once, and then very gingerly. The point of the warning was that the FBI would use its knowledge of King’s activities to destroy him. King responded that his private life was nobody’s business but his own, and Abernathy says he never raised the matter again. As David Garrow makes clear, and as Abernathy acknowledges in passing, members of King’s entourage were not noted for their sexual discipline. They were away more often than they were at home, and, Abernathy writes, “all of us in SCLC headquarters had our weak moments.” Of King he writes, “It was just that he had a particularly difficult time with that temptation. His own principal explanation of that difficulty is one I choose not to repeat here.” The last sentence, unfortunately, invites inferences some of which may be untrue and all of which are bound to be uncomplimentary to King and those closest to him.

The standard response is that it does not detract from King’s person and leadership that he was not a “saint.” But it does—unless “saint” means morally perfect, which is expected of nobody. Perfection and wantonness are not the only alternatives, however. What can be expected is a measure of moral coherence between the public and private person, what the ancients called character. Those who first publicized King’s philandering—J. Edgar Hoover and, later, King’s black-power enemies—fully intended to detract from his reputation and his cause. They were keenly aware of his particular vulnerability as a preacher. The condescending ignorance of many whites not withstanding, most black Christians do not take clerical dalliances lightly. Moreover, in recent years public figures have been forced to attend more closely to the connections between private and public virtue—something that was admittedly less the case in the 60’s and definitely not the case with respect to public figures who, like King, were favored by the Left.

The fact remains that the accusations against Abernathy and his book are in some cases unwarranted, and in almost all cases exaggerated. He tells us nothing about King’s sexual activities that has not been common knowledge for some years, except that King did on the night before he died what he very often did. If Abernathy is to be criticized for tastelessness beyond excuse, let it be for his detailed, indeed macabre, accounts of the appearance of King’s corpse after the autopsy and, some months later, when it was exhumed for reburial in its present place of memorial.

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In the end, though, what has angered critics of this book is not its occasional lapses into bad taste. What has angered them is that And the Walls Came Tumbling Down powerfully exposes the hollowness of the claim of the present civil rights establishment to be the continuation of the movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr.

That movement came to an end, as I have noted, around 1965. Abernathy does not disguise the desperation with which King attempted various stratagems to extend its life, although, especially in the last year, he often appeared weary of the entire business. The city of Chicago was the designated stage for “taking the movement North.” Abernathy details the disaster of that project, in which innocent Southerners, ignorant of racial dynamics in the North, were bullied, misled, and finally outfoxed by the likes of Mayor Richard Daley.

Another effort was aimed at tying the movement to union organizing, under the slogan that the newly won “civil rights in law” must now lead to “economic rights in life.” Abernathy describes the tactics of Operation Breadbasket, again in Chicago, where Jesse Jackson attempted to extort jobs for blacks even if it meant laying off whit workers. Abernathy does not call it extortion, but he was apparently uneasy about the moral ramifications of what would soon become the ideology of affirmative action, reparations, and quotas. Still, he consoled himself with the familiar maxim that “We were breaking eggs to make omelettes.”

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By 1968, at any rate, when King was killed, Moses may still have been a hot media item, but Joshua was not. “Nonviolence was middleclass and establishmentarian by 1968,” Abernathy writes, “and I was a middle-aged preacher full of ten-year-old platitudes. It was more interesting to do profiles on Stokely Carmichael and Rap Brown.” Leonard Bernstein was not going to invite him in to meet his friends. Nonetheless, Abernathy doggedly pushed ahead. Before his death, King had vaguely envisioned a Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, and Abernathy, despite misgivings among the SCLC staff, was determined to follow through. His description of the Poor People’s Campaign and of the “Resurrection City” pitched on the Mall between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial provides the most hilariously poignant part of his narrative.

The idea was to have thousands of poor people converge on Washington by mule train from various parts of the country. Mule trains, SCLC thought, perfectly symbolized the poverty the campaign was determined to redress. But they could not find the mules, then they could not find carts for the mules to pull, then they could not find anyone who knew how to shoe a mule, and, finally, they discovered that blacks had forgotten how to drive mules. In addition, few poor people were willing to take off from their jobs for a month or more to protest their poverty. Once several hundred people had been gotten together—blacks, whites, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, and others—and had set up their huts on the Mall, the real troubles began.

Abernathy had anticipated “a model for the rest of the nation to emulate. Everyone would live together in peace and mutual respect. . . . We would have people of all races, ethnic backgrounds, and religious beliefs. Since everyone would be poor, there would be no greed or envy.” The reality was otherwise. In one of the wettest summers in Washington history, it rained and rained and never stopped raining. Resurrection City soon turned into a huge wallow of knee-deep mud. The residents were terrorized by young black “punks” (Abernathy’s term) who came along to rob, intimidate, and generally treat Resurrection City as their turf. Different groups had their own agendas and could not care less about what SCLC had in mind. “For example,” Abernathy writes, “the Puerto Ricans were intent on gaining independence from the United States, though, from what I heard, the majority of the people on the island didn’t hold to that view.” Worst of all, the “city” itself was segregated. “It rapidly became a camp full of ghettos, with no one having a great deal to do with anyone else. All the Indians wanted to live together, all the blacks, all the Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, whites. . . . I was bitterly disappointed.”

After a few weeks, the movement to “rouse the conscience of the nation” in order to “bring about revolutionary change” had turned into a ragtag, dispirited, rain-soaked, mud-caked band of two or three dozen hangers-on telling themselves that maybe tomorrow somebody from the New York Times might show up and do a story on them. Finally ejected from the Mall by the Park Service, people were given bus tickets home by Travelers Aid.

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What had gone wrong with the movement, that it had come to this? To that question, Abernathy gives one good answer and a host of bad ones.

The good answer: “The first reason we declined in influence was our remarkable success—we had eliminated virtually all of the statutory barriers to our own advancement and equality.” Precisely. After civil rights and voting rights were legally secured, King and his colleagues had to make a decision. They could declare victory and go out of business. They could turn themselves into a mobile commission, traveling the country to make sure the new laws were enforced. Or they could “change the focus of the movement,” embracing more “radical” measures to overturn the “systemic evils” of American society and of America’s impact on the world, as in Vietnam.

Only the last option would attract national attention and, as Abernathy candidly admits, might sustain the flow of money essential to keeping the movement alive. (More than a million dollars had been spent on the Resurrection City fiasco.) “The focus of the later years,” he writes, “was no longer on race alone but on the disparity between rich and poor.” Unfortunately, the donors who had been all for racial equality held back when it came to “redistributing the wealth through taxation and federal legislation.” And here enter all of Abernathy’s bad reasons for the demise of the movement: America is a sick society, afflicted by competitiveness, consumerism, and greed, the whole compounded by white racism. They are the same reasons tirelessly reiterated by a civil-rights establishment that has been kept on an artificial life-support system for over twenty years.

To his credit, Ralph Abernathy has had some long second thoughts since 1968, and especially since 1976 when he was pushed out of the leadership of SCLC. Although he is still capable of reaching for a cliché about white racism, in his more considered moments he knows that the problems of blacks, and especially of the black underclass, have to do with personal and communal responsibility, both moral and economic. In 1980 he earned the lasting ire of his former colleagues by supporting Ronald Reagan, in the hope that the Republicans, unlike the Democrats, would have new ideas for helping poor blacks to enter the mainstream of American opportunity. In that too he was bitterly disappointed.

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In the epilogue to And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, Abernathy seems to come very close to doubting whether the whole adventure has been worthwhile. Encountering young black people in the inner cities today, “I remember the faces of my brothers and sisters and cousins a half-century ago, working in the fields of rural Alabama, glistening in the hot summer sun. The faces I recall are not as bitter and hopeless as the ones I see today. . . .” But he finally concludes that the movement was worthwhile, both for what it achieved through 1965 and for its association with the person of Martin Luther King, Jr. Had it not been for the people who followed King in challenging segregation, “We would still be looking from afar at the high walls of an impregnable city.”

What Ralph David Abernathy had hoped for all along is that, when those walls came tumbling down, every black in America would be able to live the life of dignity he himself had known in Hopewell, Alabama, except that they would now have the vote and be able to take any seat on the bus. That, of course, is exactly what has happened for millions of black Americans in the last quarter-century. Yet for millions of others in places like Bedford-Stuyvesant and South Chicago, life is bleak, and it is made bleaker still by racialist leaders who exploit their plight by telling them that the fault lies in a systematically racist society.

About this, too, Abernathy is bitterly disappointed. He stubbornly and rightly insists that the walls have come tumbling down, and it is time for blacks to help one another move on into the city of American opportunity. Little wonder that his book is not liked by people who make their living by leading angry marches ‘round and ‘round the tumbled walls.

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