Juanita Abernathy, born Dec. 1, 1931 in Uniontown, Ala., the youngest of eight born to successful farmers, died Sept. 12 in an Atlanta hospital at the age of 88.
Her contributions to the organization, development and positive outcomes gleaned during America’s modern-day Civil Rights Movement, while not as celebrated as those made by others, remain significant if not essential in the successful campaign for racial equality led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his second-in-command, the Rev. Dr. Ralph Abernathy who proceeded his wife in death in 1990.
She remained on the forefront in a host of difficult initiatives aimed at bringing equality in the lives of African Americans including the securing of voting rights for Blacks and the integration of public schools, efforts launched and maintained from the early 50s until the late 60s. She also served as one of the writers for the movement’s earliest strategic plan and endeavor – the 13-month-long Montgomery Bus Boycott whose success led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark, 1956 decision making racial segregation in the City’s public transportation system, and therefore throughout the U.S., illegal.
Like Dr. King and his family, the Abernathys, parents of five children, also faced threats, harassment – even surviving the bombing of their home and Rev. Abernathy’s church, at the hands of white supremacists, both in January 1957. Two members of the Ku Klux Klan, would be indicted after acknowledging their guilt in the bombings but would be acquitted by an all-white jury.
However, these, and other examples of injustice, some life-threatening, could not persuade Juanita Abernathy to abandon her personal dedication to securing the end of racial injustice in America – something to which she remained committed until Dr. King’s tragic death in 1968. Then, as her son Kwame shared in a public statement, “the world changed” for her, leading her to make the decision to seek a life with less conflict and turmoil. Even so, she would remain involved in civic deeds and missions aimed at securing civil rights, both as it related to world peace as well as equal rights for women’s rights in countries that would include Northern Ireland.
She served as an active voice in Atlanta, the city to which she and Dr. Abernathy, whom she married in 1952 after her graduation from Tennessee State University, would move in 1961. There, the couple, along with the Kings, worked to integrate Atlanta’s public schools – an effort that eventually resulted in led to a positive outcome.
In one of her last public service roles, she campaigned for Barack Obama in his 2007 bid for president and was given a seat of prominence during his inauguration behind former President Bill Clinton.
She leaves behind her son, Kwame, two daughters, four grandchildren and a sister.