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Ralph David Abernathy III dies after bout with cancer

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Channel 2 Action News

Channel 2 Action News

Over at Channel 2 Action News, Mark Winne reports that former state Sen. Ralph David Abernathy III, son of the famed civil rights leader, has died after a long battle with liver cancer.

The son was enormously protective of the legacy of his father, Ralph David Abernathy Jr. Below are a few paragraphs from an article my AJC colleague Ernie Suggs wrote last month about efforts to preserve the elder Abernathy’s original West Hunter Street Baptist Church in Atlanta:

Close to Abernathy’s and King’s homes, the church was an easy meeting place that also served as headquarters for several organizations and civil rights leaders and as a training facility for nonviolence.

“West Hunter was the spiritual workplace of the movement,” said Abernathy’s son, Ralph David Abernathy III. “A lot of important events that can’t be ignored or forgotten took place there.”

Abernathy III, who is fighting his own dark battles, has been trying to make sure that history and his father are not forgotten.

In January, those efforts got a boost when the National Park Service announced official plans to begin exploring the possibility of making the old West Hunter Street Baptist Church a National Historic Site.

If selected, the church could become part of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. It would be only the fourth National Park Site in metro Atlanta – following the MLK site, Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park and the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.

The younger Abernathy left the Legislature in 1998 under a cloud, but we reconnected last year, when “Selma” came out. He felt the movie shortchanged his father’s role as Martin Luther King Jr.’s partner. Read it here:

On Memorial Day last year, the widow and children of civil rights leader Ralph David Abernathy met in an upscale Buckhead hotel for a private, catered meal with Oprah Winfrey, to discuss the screenplay for the movie “Selma” — a copy of which they only recently had managed to snag.

The Abernathys feared the film would portray the family patriarch, who was Martin Luther King’s top aide during the volatile ’50s and ’60s, as an unschooled and diet-challenged comic foil rather than a strategist for a nation-changing movement.

The family came late to the argument. Local shooting, much of it around the state Capitol, had been underway for more than a week by the time the Abernathys aired their grievances in May. “This was after the horse had left the barn, ” conceded Ralph David Abernathy III, a former state lawmaker, who said he helped arrange the meeting after a conversation with the film’s director, Ava DuVernay.

The son said Donzaleigh Abernathy, a sister who is an actress in Los Angeles, had obtained a copy of the script and sent it to Atlanta. Members of the family — particularly Juanita, the widow of the civil rights leader — didn’t like what they saw.

John Lewis, (far right), Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (third from right), his wife Coretta Scott King, Ralph David Abernathy (second left), lead a march from Atlanta University to the Georgia state Capitol in 1966. Hugh Stovall/AJC staff

John Lewis, (far right), Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (third from right), his wife Coretta Scott King, Ralph David Abernathy (second left), lead a march from Atlanta University to the Georgia state Capitol in 1966. Hugh Stovall/AJC staff

The character of Ralph David Abernathy, played by Colman Domingo, “was not articulate. My mother was very upset — they made it seem like he was an uneducated man. He was more concerned with eating food, ” the son said.

Some adjustments were made, the Abernathy family says, yet they remain dissatisfied. “The depiction of the role of my father is grossly mischaracterized, ” Ralph David Abernathy III said.

But it is now a matter of omission rather than commission, he said. In the film, the King-Abernathy partnership that was formed during the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, spurred by Rosa Parks, simply does not exist — save for one small jail scene.

It is anything but a buddy flick.

Efforts to obtain comment from Harpo Films, the Winfrey film production company, were unsuccessful.

“Selma” focuses on the role that the small Alabama town played leading up to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It has been playing at two theaters in Atlanta since Christmas, and will open to general release on Friday.

As art, it is powerful stuff. The scene of marchers, including a young John Lewis, being mangled by white troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge will have you cringing in your seat.

As history, the movie has already generated criticism, principally from the family of and former aides to President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who serves as the principal, white antagonist to King.

The film “falsely portrays” LBJ as an obstructionist, even suggesting that the president sanctioned use of the FBI to discredit King, complained former domestic aide Joseph Califano.

In fact, it is an opening White House scene — a one-on-one meeting between King and Johnson — that most aggrieves the Abernathys. “My father was there. Martin Luther King never went to the White House by himself. He went with Ralph Abernathy. They went together, as a team,” the son said.

Some have suggested that the disappearance of Ralph David Abernathy from “Selma” amounts to a 25-year-old case of payback. In an autobiography published in 1989, the year before he died, Abernathy asserted that King spent the night with two women and fought with a third on the night before his 1968 assassination in Memphis. Abernathy was roundly condemned by his former civil rights colleagues, including Joe Lowery and then-Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young.

But like Abernathy, “Selma” does not shy away from that uncomfortable topic. The movie makes a pointed reference to King’s infidelities.

“I think that we’ve passed that time, ” said Ralph David Abernathy III. He prefers to see the sidelining of his father as yet another example of our tendency to prefer simplified versions of history, however incorrect they may be.

“I just believe people have the idea that there should be one — and one only — symbol of the movement, ” he said.

Movies have long been highly influential vehicles for history and culture. But there are other ways to tell a story.

Many of you will remember Ralph David Abernathy III as a state senator who, in 1998, was convicted of felony charges for falsifying public expense accounts. He served about a year in prison.

Now 55, the son of the civil rights leader says he emerged a better man for the experience, which led him to become a “late-blooming preacher.” He now has a doctorate in theology, and will be in a New York pulpit on Martin Luther King Jr. Day — though he earns his living as an executive for a firm that does genetic and toxicology testing.

Not surprisingly, Ralph David Abernathy III has also become a fierce defender of his father’s legacy. In September, he scored a major victory.

A bipartisan bill passed by Congress — shepherded in the House by U.S. Reps. Hank Johnson, D-Decatur, and Austin Scott, R-Tifton, and Republicans Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss in the Senate — would save the Atlanta building where Ralph David Abernathy preached beginning in 1961, after following King from Montgomery, Ala.

The old West Hunter Street Baptist building would be placed under the protection of the national park system — if it passes a lengthy review by the U.S. Department of the Interior. (Abernathy’s church moved to 1040 Gordon St. in 1973, but kept the West Hunter name — and still thrives.)

Just as King loomed over his No. 2, Ebenezer Baptist Church has always overshadowed West Hunter. “Ebenezer was the spiritual birthplace of MLK. But West Hunter was the spiritual workplace of the civil rights movement, ” said Ralph David Abernathy III.

West Hunter was where leadership meetings took place, where Freedom Riders were quietly schooled.

Why? MLK was co-pastor of Ebenezer with his father. And much of the more controversial stuff had to be done out of sight of the figure known as Daddy King, Ralph David Abernathy III said.

Movies are movies. But save West Hunter, and you preserve the biggest piece of physical evidence that, while Martin Luther King Jr. was unquestionably the star of the civil rights movement, there were significant supporting actors who ought not be reduced to the status of mere extras.