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Remembering Rev. Ralph David Abernathy 50 Years After Resurrection City Came Down


For more than 40 days in 1968, a tent city in Washington, D.C., became home to thousands of people. They were there to protest poverty. Fifty years ago this weekend, that tent city came down. To mark that anniversary, Kat Chow of NPR's Code Switch team brings us this profile of the man who helped make the protest happen, the Reverend Ralph David Abernathy, a hero of the civil rights movement.


RALPH DAVID ABERNATHY: I declare this to be the site of our new city, Resurrection City, USA.


KAT CHOW, BYLINE: This is Ralph David Abernathy talking to a crowd of people in May 1968. It's just weeks after his close friend and partner Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in Memphis. Abernathy was in the Lorraine Motel when King was shot. And King - he died in his arms. After King's death, Abernathy became head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And he continued the activism that he and King had begun years earlier at the start of the civil rights movement.


CHOW: Carol Anderson is a professor of African-American studies at Emory University. She says Abernathy was a quiet, powerful force. But he didn't have it easy in the summer of 1968. He was grieving his best friend.

ANDERSON: He's also dealing with folks who aren't sure he can pull it off, that, you know, there's only one Martin Luther King. I mean, it's a lot to carry.

CHOW: Abernathy would try to prove these people wrong. That summer, he led the Poor People's Campaign and Resurrection City. An estimated 2,800 people camped out over the course of six hot D.C. summer weeks. It brought together many different people, as CBS News reported then.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: There were also Appalachian whites, American Indians, Mexican-Americans.

DONZALEIGH ABERNATHY: It was these little huts that were built out of wood that people lived in.

CHOW: This is Donzaleigh Abernathy. She was 10 years old when her parents moved the family to Resurrection City. By the end of June, the weather conditions had worn down the tent city, and authorities said Resurrection City had to go.

D. ABERNATHY: My dad was crushed. I guess the police came in and just took everything down and arrested him.

CHOW: Hundreds of others were also arrested. Donzaleigh says she understood at a young age that throwing yourself behind a cause at every turn no matter how hard was crucial. She mentions one of her earliest childhood memories. Her father was driving her and one of her sisters down an Alabama highway. The kids wanted hamburgers. Abernathy told his daughters no. After all, these were tense times in the South. But his daughters begged him - hamburgers, please.

D. ABERNATHY: And it was a situation where he could have gotten killed. He went to the front of the restaurant, and there was somebody that said, if you want any hamburgers, you need go around to the back door.

CHOW: Abernathy, who'd spent years as an activist getting death threats, knew how dangerous this could be. Still, he got his daughters their hamburgers.

D. ABERNATHY: And he said, here, this is for you. Don't ever ask me to do that again.

CHOW: The reverend made sure his kids grew up knowing how serious his work was.

D. ABERNATHY: After Medgar Evers had been murdered...

CHOW: That's the civil rights leader who was shot and killed in his own driveway in 1963.

D. ABERNATHY: ...He sat us down, and he told us that one day he wouldn't come back through that door and that we needed to be prepared and that we had a responsibility.

CHOW: Despite the death threats and violence, Abernathy survived the worst and continued his fight for racial equity for decades. In 1990, he died from a heart attack. His daughter Donzaleigh says her father wanted two simple words on his gravestone - I tried.

D. ABERNATHY: All he ever wanted anybody to know about him was that he tried to do his part.

CHOW: And she says if her father, the Reverend Ralph David Abernathy, could do his part, why can't the rest of us? Kat Chow, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.