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January 17, 2011
Atlanta star lives Civil Rights history
Ralph David Abernathy IV, a star tailback at Atlanta (Ga.) Westminster who will sign a college letter of intent next month with Cincinnati, is an electric football player, his father proudly boasts.
"Once he gets the ball, you have no idea what might happen," Ralph David Abernathy III told Rivals.com. "He's very talented, very exciting. He's a game-changer."
That choice of words seems fitting, especially on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
After all, the player's grandfather, the late Ralph David Abernathy, was quite a game-changer himself as history books note. Not on the football field, mind you, but in something far more significant - the Civil Rights movement.
In fact, that's stating it mildly.
Abernathy was, as many recall, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s right-hand man. The men organized marches and sit-ins to protest racial discrimination in the 1950s and '60s. They faced threats together. And even shared jail cells.
When King was hit by an assassin's bullet early evening on April 4, 1968, on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., he was sharing room 306 with Abernathy. After medical personnel arrived on the scene, Abernathy rode in the back of the ambulance with King to a local hospital. Once there, he demanded entrance into the operating room.
"The doctors came over and said, 'There's nothing more we can do,' "Ralph David Abernathy III said, recalling the story told to him by his father. "My father went over and lied next to [King], and cradled him in his arms. He took his last breaths in my father's arms."
Abernathy died of a heart attack on April 17, 1990 at the age of 64. On that day, the White House issued a statement from then-President George H.W. Bush that read, ''Barbara and I join with all Americans to mourn the passing of the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, a great leader in the struggle for civil rights for all Americans and a tireless campaigner for justice.''
Two decades later, Abernathy IV is well aware of his grandfather's historic achievements.
"I've been learning about him for as far back as I can remember," Abernathy IV, an 18-year-old senior, told Rivals.com. "My parents and grandmother always told me about him, about what my grandfather fought for."
And his grandfather's legacy is all around him. In Atlanta, the Abernathy name is among the city's most prominent. It adorns streets, and even a stretch of Interstate 20.
At Westminster, a prestigious school that according to Abernathy III once denied entrance to King's children, Abernathy the athlete is a big deal. That is partly because of his exploits on the football field, but also because of his lineage.
"I try not to make it such a huge deal," he said. "In my mind, it's just who I am. It's just a part of me. But it's hard to not (be impressed) when people are like, 'Oh my God, your grandfather changed the world.' That's when you sit back and you think, 'My God, I'm related to him.' It's definitely one of the coolest things.
"… There's added pressure, definitely. When you have the name Abernathy, you're held to a higher standard than everyone else. As a kid, I always felt the need to be perfect in everything I did. But in my opinion, it only helps me excel. More than anything, I'm thankful for what he accomplished. If he would have failed, I wouldn't be able to go to the great school I'm at now."
A Civil Rights partnership
Ralph David Abernathy was more than just a confidant to King.
"They were partners to history," said Abernathy III, 51. "They called themselves the Civil Rights twins. They dressed alike, wore the same shoes, wore the same overcoats, had the same top hats, the same suits. They even posed the same way. Martin Luther King was the leader. But look at the pictures; everywhere you see one, you see the other."
The men's families were close, too.
Their wives, Coretta Scott King and Juanita Abernathy, were friends until the former's death in 2006, and often accompanied their husbands on trips. Abernathy III and Dexter King, Martin Luther King's second son, were classmates and football teammates in elementary school.
To the Abernathy children, King was known simply as Uncle Martin.
"My father was not Uncle Martin's deputy or his lieutenant," Abernathy III said. "He was actually his partner and his best friend. In the words of Martin Luther King on several occasions, most poignantly on the night he gave the 'mountain top' speech, he said, 'Ralph David Abernathy is the best friend I have in the whole world.' This came out of his lips."
Like Coretta Scott King, Juanita Abernathy wasn't just a witness to Civil Rights history. She helped make it.
"I was there from the beginning, at the Montgomery Bus Boycott [beginning in 1955]," Juanita Abernathy recalled. "We started off there. I typed up some of the leaflets for the people to stay off the bus and passed them out."
Juanita went from Civil Rights activist to high school football fan, specifically her grandson's top cheerleader. During the past few football seasons, Juanita sat in the stands at every Westminster game wearing a button with Abernathy IV's photo on it.
"She decks out," Abernathy IV said.
"I never went to his father's games," Juanita Abernathy said, laughing. "But I got to all of his. I get a lot of joy out of it. Not just because he's good at football. But because he's such a great child. He's a wonderful young man."
Abernathy IV is particularly close with his grandmother, whom he calls the "rock where everything starts." Juanita lives around the corner from Abernathy III, wife Annette, and their children, Ralph David, Christiana, 16, and Micah, 13. She said she sees traits in Ralph David similar to those once exhibited by her late husband.
"His demeanor is the same," she said. "He's real sort of level-headed, not high-strung, pretty even-tempered."
Impacting lives in other ways
Ralph David Abernathy didn't live to see any of his four grandchildren born.
"He wanted grandchildren so badly," Juanita Abernathy said. "He would always say, 'I just want to see my grandchildren,' but he didn't make it. I think about him so often, and about how proud he would be."
The fact Abernathy IV attends a mostly white school, has many white friends and will play football at a major university - signs of racial progress - isn't lost on the family matriarch.
"We knew the only way for our society to achieve its true goal of democracy and justice and equality was for us to have integration," Juanita Abernathy said. "We had to have an integrated community. You cannot survive in a divided community. We're still not as integrated as we should be. It's a process, a continual process."
Abernathy III, once a state senator, has been active in the community for years while championing the causes of the underprivileged. Today, he is an ordained minister at the West Hunter Street Baptist Church in Atlanta, which is where his father was serving as senior pastor at the time of his death. The church, appropriately, is located on Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard.
For his part, Abernathy IV, a solid B student, is hoping to make an impact in a different arena.
He rushed for more than 1,000 yards as a junior but was slowed significantly in 2010 by a nagging ankle injury. When healthy, he's quite difficult to tackle. Not great in stature (5-foot-7, 160 pounds), Abernathy IV is known for his terrific speed and uncanny elusiveness on the field, two assets he thinks will serve him well in college, and possibly beyond.
"The best way to make my mark, quite honestly, is through the NFL," Abernathy IV said. "That would open up so many different avenues most people don't think of. When you're in the NFL, so many kids really look up to you. No kids aspire to be state senators. They aspire to be in the NFL. If I could be a pro athlete, I could impact so many lives."