tv Juanita Jones Abernathy on Civil Rights CSPAN January 1, 2015 6:05pm-7:58pm EST
from the audience at the southern historical association annual meeting in atlanta. this is just under two hours. we are fortunate indeed for mrs. abernathy returned yesterday from an extended stay in germany with the family of her eldest daughter wandaline. some of you may know it was wandaline as a babe, along with her mother mrs. abernathy, pregnant with her second daughter, survived the bombing of their home in montgomery in 1957. along with tuskegee attorney fred gray, she is the last remaining leader from the montgomery bus boycott boycott. on several occasions i have been privileged to listen to mrs. abernathy, recall her experiences in the civil rights struggle. we are in for a treat. our program is simple.
first, we will hear introductory comments by a scholar. mrs. abernathy will offer remembrance s about the movement. finally we'll open the floor to psh questions so we can have an engaging conversation with mrs. abernathy. let me identify miss brenda tindel of university of north carolina charlotte who will introduce mrs. abernathy. native of charlotte earning her bachelor there and working on docket hit at emory university on dissertation that explores lives of widows. please join me in welcoming mrs. tindel. [ applause ]
>> greetings. it is indeed a privilege to provide opening remarks for this special session entitled remembering the career in civil rights, dialogue with mrs. juanita jones abernathy. i'd like to thank gregory nixon, john eskew and harris for inviting know take part in this ram. finally i'd like to thank mrs. abernathy for sharing time, wisdom and unique perspective on the civil rights movement. as you can see, hers is a life well lived and well preserved even as she has endured and witnessed our nation's darkest hours. needless to say we are excited to hear from her today. the civil rights movement as diane mcwhorter once wrote is endless areally prismatic struggle at the score of our natural identity. indeed it's a movement that's been written for multiple perspectives, documented in countless manuscripts, biographies, auto biographies, documentaries and films and elongated in our scholarly quest to find historic borders.
it is like all things subject to atrophy of memory in light of historic anniversaries. this year alone we celebrate the 50th anniversary of civil rights act 1964 freedom summer. we remember the lives of james e. cheney, andrew goodman and michael swarner who lost their lives fighting in the trenches for freedom. however, if we wish to continue deepening our understanding of this prismatic struggle, it will not solely be found by studying the iconic men or block buster events that have are come to dominate the movement's master narrative. rest assured, that story is
important and has found a permanent home in the american social political reform. for me, the story of the civil rights movement became more intimate, more tangible even, when i watched the eyes on the prize documentary as a high school student and heard mrs. abernathy utter these words, we were the movement. she was in part referring to the significant role everyday black women played in the struggle for freedom. she was alluding to the unique contribution she made to the wife of ralph david abernathy
and most importantly an activist in her own right. there is a rather naive tendency to view the wives of prominent civil rights leaders as satellites of the struggle politicized upon marrying their husbands as women standing behind their men rather than beside them. to the contrary, women like mrs. abernathy, king, young and so many other wives were partners in the movements for civil rights. in their predate and transcend, the lives they shared with their husbands. in the case of mrs. abernathy, the germ of her activism is firmly routed in union town, alabama. in his auto biography "the walls came tumbling down." dr. abernathy writes, from
talking to her parents, i learned she had always been strong willed and independent. as a young girl she had not submitted to other indignities other blacks were willing to bear. as a teenager, she had come to town to buy the week's groceries at the white owned super market. as her items were rung up, she watched a boy carry her items out to the car of a white girl in front of her. the cashier asked for her money, and she refused to pay it. the cashier looked at her for a second and shook his head. what are you it waiting for? he asked. i'm waiting for the boy to carry out my groceries, she replied. the cashier looked puzzled but then his mouth fell wide open. he said we do that for white customers only. you charged me the same amount, she said. then i should get the same service. she dug in her heels. the cashier stood for a moment uncertain of what to do. the line was getting longer. still the cashier wouldn't
instruct the boy to carry her groceries. well? she said finally. if the boy can't take my groceries to the car, i guess he'll have to put them back on the shelves. then she walked out of the store. dispatches such as these reveal the stages of mrs. abernathy's politicization that evolved in the 1950s and 1960s marking water shed with america's brand of democracy. with her husband, she stood on the front lines of the movements iconic overtures including the montgomery bus boycott, major campaigns in albany, birmingham, selma, chicago. the poor people's campaign and the charleston strike of 1968. she like dr. abernathy marched in her sunday best. she too was jailed. still, there were times she weathered the storm without her husband. in this regard, no one noou the casual violence and pedestrian
hate like the wives of the struggle. they courted widowhood as the spector of death and their husband's were defined their lives. when their husbands were away, their home phones rang endlessly. they were often on the end of empty and real threats of violence and harm. in 1957 for instance, while mrs. abernathy was pregnant with her daughter and home alone with her eldest daughter wandaline, then a baby, their house and abernathy's church, first baptist church in montgomery were fire bombed. though she and her children emerged unscathed, such an act was the dangers of civil rights activism. beyond the ways in which she interfaced with the civil and human rights, mrs. abernathy served as first lady in the churches, dr. abernathy pastored and confidant of her husband for the civil rights conference following the death in 1968. she witnessed trials and tribulations that came with public life.
she and dr. abernathy renegotiated their political ambitions in the post civil rights years. in truth no one can tell this story with level of integrity and eyewitness intimacy better than mrs. abernathy herself. with that said, i'll hand the podium over to the lady of the hour, mrs. juanita jones abernathy. [ applause ]
>> thank you. thank you. oh what a beautiful introduction. thank you. and thank you dr. eskew for envisions this opportunity for me and seeing it through. last night i arrived from a ten hour flight from germany and got in the bed about 11:00 and a rose this morning. i could not miss this opportunity. it's so important to speak with you historians for you write the words that many of our young people and teach the words that many of our young people will only learn from you. i pray that you will be unrelenting in your teaching the
truth regardless to how you feel about it. my husband used to say, as i would say to him, ralph, the media said this and the media said that. that's not true. i said you did this and you did that. they don't even call your name. his reply would always be juanita, don't worry about my legacy. real historians will dig up the truth. my response always would be to him, dig it up from who? we will all be gone by then. so who will tell the truth? i'm asking you to be that vehicle to write our history and to tell it like it was and like it is. i truly feel you have a moral obligation to tell the truth.
by the news media and articles and magazines by people who during the civil rights movement many of whom were not even privileged to write for the new york times. time magazine and u.s. news and world report. they were not able privileged at that time to write. they are now writing our history. it's very, very, very, very unfortunate. i started off as miss tindel said -- i'm an old schoolteacher. you get accustomed to learning names. that you -- people -- she did some research. people don't. they don't look for anything, and they go into the classroom -- and i'm not
criticizing you teachers -- and tell these stories as though they are facts. i've heard over and over and over again that malcom x and martin luther king were friends. not so. they only met once. that was in washington d.c. only met once. it's expedient now to put some people with some people, so they do that because it's good
publicity. they only met once. and you will see the picture of malcom and ralph -- martin and malcom shaking hands. between them you see the tie of a man. they reached over my husband who was present at that initial and only meeting. they reached across him and shook hands. the wives were not friends. in fact, to tell the truth, hah malcom x was not even a supporter of what we were doing. we were non violent, and we were
moving too slow. many of us were called uncle tom's and being ultraconservative because of the positions we took. so now everybody was with us who was black. that's not true. every leader of an organization who was black was not with us. it's time for us to get it right. i'm not as young as i used to
be. thank god i have good health. he's been good to me. i have no health problems except arthritis i've had since i was 17 in college. i don't have any high blood pressure. i don't have any heart disease i'm aware of. and i don't have diabetes. i don't take one medication. my god has been good to me. my mother had 93 past who had no high blood pressure and no heart disease. her body just shut down one day, and she went on in. so i attribute that to -- i i tell everybody must have been my indian genes cause my grandmother, grandfather was full blooded cherokee. my grandmother on my mother's
side was half cherokee. so maybe, i don't know, maybe that's what's keeping me. i don't know, but i am thankful to god that i have my mental faculties, i can remember, and my children don't like for me to remember as much as i do because it's convenient sometimes when they can run things past you because you do not remember. i want to say something to you about the women of the civil rights movement. you hear about men did this and men did that and men did the other. they did, but let me tell you something. women have always be been the backbone of men.
whether you give us credit for it or not. real men know that without their wives, god only knows what would happen to them sometimes. women take care of the children, they do the teaching and the training, and give the examples of finer woman hood to our girls. we look to the fathers to give their sons examples of finer man hood. women have always been brave. we've always been intuitive. you know, we are kind of half way psychic.
you know, sometimes you tell your husband well honey i wouldn't do so and so if i were you because it just may not happen the way you think it will. and i think maybe you need to think about that a little more. mr. or mrs. so and so who works in that business is not as loyal as you think she is or he is. we are kind of intuitive. men don't always like to hear that, but the older they get, you know, the more they kind of give us a little more credit when they can't avoid it. i'm not downing men.
i'm just telling you like it is. men are courageous, but there's an old, old saying behind every great man there's a woman. i like to say beside him because we don't walk behind, we walk beside our men. my husband used to say, as pastor of the church, when the women leave, i'm going too. the backbone of the church, and you know it's the truth, are the women. if you want a job done and done well, give it to the women, and they will see it through.
the men in the movement ran the movement. before their was a movement, there were two women joanne robinson and mary burke. you hear little about them. those two women were working with the montgomery bus boycott boycott, bus system, to get them to give us an assigned seating arrangement to the blacks. joe an robinson and mary burke were with the council long before we had martin luther king. you hear now that martin luther king started it. that's not true. e.d. nixon was president of the naacp and rosa parks was the secretary. my husband was chairman of the membership drive.
had when we married he was teaching at alabama state with joanne robinson and mary burke. he had to quit to give his full time to the church, first baptist church, where he was when i married him. the church he was pastoring when martin came to pastor dexter avenue baptist church. you don't hear very much about vernon johns. you need to look him up. a genius of a man, a very courageous man. well educated and was not afraid of anybody or anything. was martin's predecessor at dexter avenue baptist church. you don't read very much about vernon johns because he wasn't concerned about whether he had on a certain suit or even if the
suit was really that clean. his shirt collar could have been broken down. didn't really matter. an intellect churl but he and his first wife raised three phi bet at that kappa children. we don't give him credit. had there not been vernon johns in montgomery who laid the foundation and did his one man protest constantly in montgomery, there never would have been a rosa parks. before rosa, there was claudette colvin who had been arrested and mary louise smith. they were teenagers and could not gel the community.
rosa's being the secretary of the naacp, when she sat down, e.d. nixon said now it's time for us to do something. now you read in some of these books -- again i tell you how people are writing our history -- somebody even said that rosa was chosen and had been counselled what to do. that's why she sat down.
biggest lie that could be told. mary burke and joann robinson had gotten from the bus company a seating arrangement. rosa was the first two seats, the long seat across the back, and the first two rows from the back forward. rosa was seated in one of those seats when the bus driver asked her to get up and give her seat to a white man. she refused because she was seated where the bus company had said blacks were legally supposed to sit. so when you read that rosa was chosen to sit there to get a case, that's not true.
i was in montgomery. i answered the phone when e.d. nixon called and said ralph, we've got to do something. rosa has been arrested. because my husband was a leader in montgomery as a student head of the student body at alabama state and an activist in the community as a pastor. pastoring the oldest black baptist church there, dexter avenue baptist church which grew out of first baptist. so i'm saying this so that you can tell it like it should be. i had a history teacher to ask me once, mrs. abernathy, how did it feel for your church, first baptist, to be invited to dexter? i said excuse me. how did it feel for your
church -- i read that your church was invited to dexter. i said yes. how did that make you feel? i said, so i don't understand. first baptist is the oldest church. national baptist convention usa incorporated was organized. alabama state college organized in first baptist. what do you mean? she said your church was invited to dexter. i said dexter was a sister church that came out of first baptist. we are not a less than church. she said oh, i didn't understand hah that. so that's what happens when people write stories rather than facts. my position ever since has been to tell the truth, to give credit where credit is due. claudette colvin sat down and was arrested and mary lee smith did too.
stay off the buses one day. that was monday. to demonstrate that we didn't like what had happened. that rosa was arrested. after the buses ran empty on monday, they decided to do it on tuesday. and on thursday they organized and decided to get a president. martin luther king was chosen the president. the boycott was a 100% success before we had a leader. it was the fact that the community were completely irritated by the abuse of the mean bus drivers in montgomery. that sparked what i call automatic combustion.
the people were tired. i am so thankful that i am still here and can say some things. i hope you understand i don't need anything from it. i just know that the truth has to be told for oncoming generations because if you don't tell it, who will? i look at reporters today. nobody does research. they just write a story. if people take the stories that they pick up from the media as being facts and write the books, then the truth will never get out because nobody does
the women were the backbone of the civil rights movement. now somebody will say she's saying that because she's a woman. yeah, part of it. but it was a chauvinistic period in our history, and women were seen and very seldom heard. not because they didn't have anything to say, but it was the chauvinistic period in our history.
you know that. it was black, white, brown, red, yellow. it was a chauvinistic period. in some cultures, it's still chauvinistic. women have not come of age, so to speak. but they were the ridership. 75% of the ridership were women. 45% of them were black. so, you see how important they were? the decisions to make a difference was made by man but not been for the participation, our protestors for the most part to open doors, were women and young people. the leadership of course was male, but if they had not had us, there wouldn't have been any marches. look at the pictures on the marches you see and tell me when you count, don't you see more females than you do males? and you see children, young people. in birmingham you look at the
fire hoses. when we had the birmingham movement, when they turned the firehoses on people. who were they? young people. those water hoses knocked those young people down, some of them. the march from selma to montgomery was young people. we marched now. we marched that 50 miles. some people say they just said that. no, no, no. we marched. and thank god we were young. i don't think we could have made it if we hadn't been. we didn't have good tennis shoes
then. we just had on regular shoes. the first day we marched, my feet had blisters so bad until i had to put band aids on the blisters and put my shoes on the next day so we could keep on walking. but that was for the right to vote. out of that march, we got the voting rights act, and now with our reactionary legislators, they're trying to turn the clock back. if those of you, black and white, are not vigilant, the clock will go back to where it was pre civil rights movement. because the old dixiecrat spirit of the citizen's council, kkk have a name. they're called tea party. i was telling my daughter the other day in germany. i said i never thought i would
live to see a time when those same spirits would come back. i thought they were gone forever. they have come back in the form of tea party because that sounds better than white citizens council or klu klux klan. the spirit is the same. you have to make the difference. it will not change unless we change it. everybody goes along to get along now. it will be a different america for your grandchildren if we
don't speak up and speak out. we have a very, very reactionary senate now. it's no accident. the german newspapers were talking about how conservative america has become. their prediction is that america cannot stand as a great nation in the world among world powers with her country in 2014 still separated by race, color, and class. so, you know i'm an american.
times, and i haven't been anywhere i want to live other than america. why? because we have a right to speak up and speak out if we don't like it. in many countries, if you don't like it you can't open your mouth. that's what our democracy gives us the privilege to do. so we have to see to it that the spirit of mr. boehner and those will not be the spirit of america. president obama has all the rights and privileges of any
president who has ever sat in that chair. no laws changed when we got a black president. he can sign executive orders any time he gets ready. george bush signed as many as he wanted to. i never read anywhere, oh i'm in germany reading that -- oh he had the nerve to sign an executive order. he went over the legislators. i said to my daughter, i said my god. the legislators are sent to washington from their districts. the president of the united states, bill clinton, george bush sr. and jr., was sent to
america's white house by the united states of america. they're constituents. citizens voted them in. barack obama went there the same way. when george bush signed his name, nobody said a word. that's what i read in germany about america. we are sending a very bad signal about who we are. we are bigger than that and we are better than that. but you have to make the difference. i'm proud to be here dr. eskew.
and i'm honored to be here. but i just wan you, who are our leaders, to please pretty please, pretty pretty please make sure that our young people know the facts and inspire them to be leaders. because if not, our young people, if they don't do it, who will? and if you don't teach them, who will? our parents don't always know. most of you will even have to teach the parents. i thank you for the opportunity to speak with you and dr. escue has been wonderful.
and i'm sure he is a part of the reason why, the main reason why we're here, because he wanted me to say what i always say. i have no reason to be dishonest. but lowry was never a part of the montgomery movement. malcolm and he were not friends. their wives were not friends. they became friends later. i went to every march -- montgomery, selma, and john
lewis and jose william was beaten in selma because they wanted to march early. and we were going to march later. so they called dr. king's church to get him to get approval, jose and john, and they couldn't get him out of the pulpit so they called wes, for my husband to get martin to give him approval. and they went on and marched anyway. they didn't get permission to march. and they beat them unmercifully. but that did not stop the selma to montgomery march. people was killed.
people bled, suffered, died. they called our house for five years night and day, white citizens council paid a woman to call and cuss and threaten me all day and the man came on at night and he'd cuss and threaten to kill us until 7:00 in the morning. but that was to make us stop. now, he didn't know when they were going to act on their threats till finally they did. and they bombed the house. i looked out january 10th and the wind was just gushing in. didn't a piece of plaster fall in my bedroom. the chimney fell just outside of my bedroom, and all the plaster fell all over the house. not a piece in my bedroom. now, what does that tell you?
my baby didn't even wake up. there is a god who rules. not a piece of anything fell in my bedroom. the transom that went over my door. the glass fell into the dining room. nothing fell in my bedroom. god takes care of his children. and he took care of me. he took care of my baby and took care of the baby i was carrying. she shook for six months, but after that she was all right. but it just shows you, stand up. you've got somebody who can stand with you. and teach the truth from here to heaven. thank you, and god bless you. thank you, dr. escue.
[ applause ]. i take questions, yes, i will. yes. >> if you have any questions you'd like to ask, please come forward. >> so what were you thinking as your husband got involved in the boycott? was there much discussion around the dinner table about what this was likely to mean? >> no. you know, we didn't plan anything in the movement. everything was just done. we just did it.
there was no discussion. when we -- when mr. nixon decided that we were going to boycott the buses, he ralph said okay. he called ralph, said okay, i'll call the ministers. and he called the ministers, and they went to that pulpits on sunday morning. but the ironic thing is one of the ladies, a maid, got a notice -- i typed the leaflets, some leaflets on my old royal typewriter. you know, back then we had royal typewriters. and i was teaching typing, and i had six carbons. you know, if you had a heavy
touch you could do six carbons and i cut them into strips and paid the little boys 25 cents to distribute them. so a lady got -- a maid got one of these strips that we are not riding the bus on monday in protest of rosa parks' arrest. so she called her boss lady and said i can't come to work monday because i can't ride the bus. and she wanted to know where did that come from. she said, well, i have this strip of paper that says blacks -- negroes -- we were negroes then. now we're african-americans. we've evolved. negros are not riding the bus on monday. so she said okay, i want to see it. so she came to her house and picked up the piece of paper, took it to "the montgomery advertiser," and they put it on the front page on sunday morning.
that was all the publicity we need. negroes were not riding the bus on monday in protest of rosa parks' arrest. see how god works? >> mrs. abernathy, you don't know this, but you and i were in the same room and were both on the dais with 35 or 40 of fred shuttlesworth's best friends at his funeral three years ago. and i want to tell this group that the best speech delivered at his funeral was delivered by juanita abernathy. and i would like for you to talk about -- i have written a few pages about fred shuttlesworth but not nearly enough about ruby. i wonder if you could tell this audience about her and your
interactions with the shuttlesworth family during birmingham. >> well, ruby shuttlesworth -- her maiden name was ruby keeler. she and my sister graduated high school together. i went to a private baptist school from first through 12th grade, and so did my sister. and ruby was a classmate of one of my sisters, and that's how i got to know her, because my sister was her friend. and she was a beautiful woman, very shapely, very talented, and very smart.
and, you know, men have a way of choosing the right kind of woman when they have certain ambitions, because as i said before, the women are -- you know, we're the backbone. we have strength and power that many folk don't know about, and we're quiet because you don't -- you know, they used to have a say, women are supposed to be seen and not heard. and that's how much of our integrity, stick-to-itiveness, and ambition is hidden. but ruby was a wonderful, wonderful woman. and fred couldn't have been the man that he was had not there
been a ruby, just like ralph couldn't have been the man he was had not there been a juanita. of course my father told him that. you'll never shut up and whatever she thinks she's going to tell you and whatever she wants to do, she's going to do it, but don't put your hands on her because i never hit her. bring her back where you got her from because you didn't get her off the streets or the alley. that was his lecture when he asked for me. >> ms. abernathy, i heard the late jean-jacquesson say one time that one of the things people don't know as another
part of the story is that the women held the men together, that this entire group of women were all from this culture in west alabama, you all knew each other, your families were interrelated, you grew up together. you were talking about what that with ms. shuttlesworth, but would you talk about that culture just a little bit more, please? >> yes. it's the black belt of alabama. jean childs -- my parents new jean's parents. they were childs in birmingham -- in marion, alabama. and we were joneses in uniontown, which is the same county. i don't ever say this, but my father was a very, very successful farmer and dairyman. and he was never a poor man. and never worked for a white man.
owned his land and plantation, and there were three families who lived on our plantation who worked the land. but he was what i guess people call wealthy. we could never say that. and we were taught that if you ever bragged about anything you have, i'll disown you. i grew up in a home my father built in 1923. ten rooms and an indoor bathroom.
in the country. and he and his brothers never worked for anybody except themselves. and my grandfather came out of slavery, i guess, with enough land to give seven of his children 100 acres apiece. and they were all adjoining each other except there was a black man and had 12 children whose plantation adjoined one side of my father's. but they were not married, but they lived together and they had 12 mulatto children, mansfield children. but my father had a dairy, and he shipped 40 gallons of milk
every day to kraft plant in uniontown. kraft cheese, well, there was a kraft plant and he shipped milk there. tuskegee institute honored him as the best farmer in the black belt of alabama because of his success and what i guess people call wealth. but we couldn't talk about it because his philosophy was if you have more, god has blessed you above others, it's because your blessing is to help others and not brag about it. so i grew up in perry county. but we were not dependent on
anybody except the lord. and my father did well, did extremely well. oh, and we went to selma university. it's still in existence. our president was a graduate of brown university, and his wife was a graduate of oberlin college. my third grade teacher was graduate of oberlin college. and our teachers were educated in the best schools, but back then -- they weren't paid anything. they taught for the love of teaching.
and i was determined that if i ever had a daughter, that daughter, and she was musical or interested in music that she would go to oberlin college because of the influence that i had in high school. and i must say my oldest daughter went to oberlin and graduated with her degree in music and voice and then went on to boston conservatory to get her masters in voice. she now lives in germany. but that was from my influence in my high school that took her to oberlin, because i was determined that a child of mine would go there. my son, seated in front of me,
kwame, i wanted to go to brown. his daddy took him to brown, looking at colleges, and i kept waiting for everybody -- students were getting their acceptance to different schools, and his father took him to williams and, well, wesleyans -- he took him to three different schools i know, brown, williams, and somewhere else, because i let him take his son to the schools. when he was a senior at pace academy. and i kept waiting for this response because the other young people had gotten answers back from their schools, you know, from their applications. and my godson had gotten his answer from brown.
and i said, well, kwame, why haven't you heard? and his response finally after i just kept running my mouth and running my mouth he said mama, i didn't mail it. i said what? he said i didn't want to go to williams -- go to brown. i'm going to williams. he didn't mail the application. but i was going to send him to brown because dr. jenkins had gone to brown and his wife had gone to oberlin. and he wouldn't mail the application. so he went to williams and he graduated from williams. >> on that note, ms. abernathy, i wanted to ask a question, what was it like being a civil rights leader and raising children during the movement?
>> oh, wow. you had to be strong because you were mother and father. my husband was gone all the time and he was home primarily -- we knew he was going to be home on friday, saturday, and sunday because he was traveling with -- you know, all over the country, he and dr. king with the movement during the week. i had a son and two daughters so, you had to be strong if you're going to raise children because you have to be the disciplinarian. my husband never hit a child. he balled up a newspaper once to
hit ralph but never hit a child. so i had to do all of the punishing, you know, sit them in the bathroom, shut the door, and make them turn their faces to the wall and all that. you had to punish them because you had to be in control. and if you did not have rules and regulations as women and the man is not there, children would walk over you. they would walk over you if you didn't stand your ground because they were determined too, and you had to be strong, had to be strong, because it was a lonely life of sacrifice, really. you've got responsibilities to the community, then you have
your own responsibility. thank god i had help for a time. that was one of my requirements when i married. i had to have help, because when i married i had help. and i told my husband, somebody's going to wash my clothes and somebody's going to clean my house. i am not going to do that. somebody does it now, and somebody's going to do it when we get mar rid, so we had that understanding. and i had a full-time housekeeper, and that is one thing that helped to make it easy. yes? >> could you say more about the baptist school that you attended, how large the school was? is it in perry county?
>> no. it was in selma. selma. in selma. >> selma. >> it's -- it was a religious school. it was baptist. [ inaudible question ] well, it was just -- at that time it was founded -- my mother went to that high school. >> selma university is where fred shuttlesworth also graduated. >> yeah, and his wife. mm-hmm. >> yeah. >> it's very prestigious school back in those days. teachers were very well educated, and as i said before, they taught for the love of teaching because they certainly were not paid that much. but they were excellent teachers, excellent, well, well trained. and they had a broad vision of
the world. so those kind of things were instilled in us, that you could be bigger and you could be anybody you wanted to be. and they -- you know, they were strict. you had to do. you had to learn. and i thank god for that -- for those experiences. >> was it a boarding school? >> it was a boarding school, yeah. >> and you were there through grammar and elementary -- >> uh-huh. i entered at 5 years of age. >> i wanted to follow up on the question of how did it feel coming back to selma in 1965 as a civil rights protester, having spent so much time there in school? >> i knew the city inside-out and knew the people. my husband's sister went to selma university, two of them, but i knew the community, and that is one of the reasons why we went to selma.
see, that was -- voter registration was zero in selma. and we went to selma to start voter registration because they were giving them a fit and just people trying to register. they were not going to have it. so that's how we went to selma. and our march was to demonstrate the fact that voting is important, and that's why we marched from selma to montgomery. and we marched those 50 miles. >> i'm kind of curious. so there's a selma march museum. there's the museums on the site at the beating of the bridge and the state archives and such.
have you taken yourself through the museums just to see how -- >> the people who did the museum don't know what they're doing. excuse my grammar. >> the one in selma? >> the one in selma. >> okay. >> it's very unfortunate, people decide who they are going to give credit to and who they're going to recognize. they rewrite our history. i went there and i was thoroughly disgusted. >> really. >> they had rewritten the facts of selma. and that's what's unfortunate. people now decide they are going
to write the civil rights movements history the way they think it should have been rather than the way it was. they are putting into place players who did not participate, saying they did things they did not do, and have put in print the names of people who just are johnny-come-latlies, didn't do a thing in the civil rights movement but now they're important, so all of a sudden they are civil rights leaders. and they didn't change one law. when i came to atlanta, this city was closed in 1961. my little children and coretta scott king's three children, martin, yolanda, martin, and dexter, and her children integrated the elementary schools in the city of atlanta. and the white area
superintendent said to me, he said, well, okay, ms. abernathy, when you leave home, a friend of mine was on the school board, we work together, peace and freedom, and she told me about the schools and which school to integrate. she said you don't want to be bothered with the people in buckhead. you take spring street. the faculty of georgia tech send their children to spring street and the governors send their children to spring street. you've got a more intellectual heritage there than you have at any of the other schools. you don't want to deal with buckhead.
so when i called the area superintendent and told him my choice, he said, okay, you call me 15 minutes before you -- you call me when you leave home and i will call the principal and tell her you're coming so she won't have time to call all of her friends and have them there. and that he did. i won't call his name. and still when coretta and i got there, with our three little children, the media was there. but the principal only had 15 minutes, so that's how we took -- we chose string street elementary school to integrate. >> one other question. so when -- >> and by the way, we didn't have a minute's trouble at spring street. not a minute. miss douglass, she got all
right, she got over it. >> okay. >> because every morning when i dropped my little children off i'd volunteer. i said i can do anything you want me to do. i'm here. okay. >> one other question. so when october 1960 king got sent to jail just before the presidential election for parole violation on his driving or something like that, this is just before the kennedy election, what were folks -- what was mrs. king -- what were you thinking as he got sent out to the rural penitentiary or whatever it was, because he was in jail -- he was sen fenced for
like four months or something like that. so what were folks thinking? >> he didn't stay. >> right. >> we went alabama in '60 when that happened. and they moved to atlanta in '60, we moved back in '61. >> but you might answer, what did it feel like when your husband was arrested and locked up in jail? >> yeah. well, you know, they almost knew when they were going to jail. and my husband had a little bible, you know, little red bible about this size, and he always stuck his bible in his pocket. and a few pieces of paper inside the bible to scribble on. they arrest him in '60. that was the only time. and they always planned to go together because they could watch each other's back. ralph would be there to see what they did to martin, and martin
would be there to see what they did to ralph. that was a witness always. and the jailers would be nasty and they spat in the water and everything and shove it through, you know, the little door that they push the food through in prison. and they wouldn't drink it. >> how many times did ralph go to jail? >> oh, it was 20-some times. >> how many times did you go to jail? >> oh, i don't know. i was prepared to go and coretta and i had made up my mind we were going, and they wouldn't take us. >> i wanted to ask you about after dr. king is killed and the poor people's march is going on and all the work that your husband took up in washington, were you involved in that? >> yes, ma'am.
>> and can you describe -- >> they made mud in washington. >> could you talk about that period and just how hard it was and how -- what you all did for that program? >> it rained, it rained, it rained, it rained. i never seen so much mud in all my life and i grew up in the country. but we had mud and mud and mud in resurrection city. but we stayed there because we had a point to prove, and we were determined. and people played down resurrection city, but you got minimum page because of that. there was no such thing. and we had other things that we were pushing for, but out of resurrection city came minimum wage. this country did not have -- they called us communists when you start talking about -- the corporate heads started calling us communists when we were talking act a minimum wage.
what do you mean a minimum wage? because that meant that they had to pay their workers a certain amount per hour. and they were not going to do that. that would affect their bottom line. so, no, no, no, we're not going to have minimum wage. these folks are communists. but that's when we got minimum wage. >> when i asked you about being arrested, i was actually thinking about the time -- of going to jail, i mean. weren't you arrested by governor lester maddox trying to get to resurrection city? wasn't there a caravan coming through georgia with you? >> i wasn't on it. my husband was, but i wasn't on it. i wasn't on it. >> yes, sir. >> i tried my best to go to jail. >> yes, ma'am. i'm wondering if you have any
particular memories of being at penn center off the coast of buford and then the charlton hospital strike? i'd like to hear a little bit about that. >> okay. i read about it in the auto guy biography. i never went to penn center, but they had a lot of meetings and planning sessions at penn center. but charleston hospital workers, i'm glad you mentioned it, we protested and protested and protested in charleston. i don't know whether they really got the wages that they were looking for, but that was when martin died, and they did get an increase in their -- they were paid slave wages up until that time. but i think dr. king's death really had a great, great impact
on what took place. charleston had not forgotten that. they had not forgotten that because, see, they didn't want charleston to -- memphis was the doom, and i don't mean martin -- ralph did not want to stop. they protested in memphis, and martin was assassinated, they kept on. but we marched in charleston, and they got a wage increase, but it wasn't what it should have been.
it really wasn't. and memphis, i don't think they ever got what they were protesting, what they died for in memphis. i don't think they ever got that. you know, that -- we had hardcore people. you all have no idea. people just were not going to do right. and they even down played the fact that -- died and she shouldn't have been down there any way. can you imagine? here was woman of conscience who came to make her witness known, and we had racists, people saying she should have stayed where she was, she had no business coming down here, meddling. she had every right to be there. so we've taken a beating, some people have.
>> your husband described chicago as being worse than birmingham or selma. >> oh, god. what was it like? >> cicero and chicago, i thought i was going to die. more so than the meredith march in mississippi. it was the first time in my life that i had ever marched. and people had rifles. men were on the trunks of their cars with rifles pointed at us. and the police did not open their mouths, and they stood there and saw it. i really thought i was going to die in chicago, because the police didn't care. and we marched through cicero, and all you could hear was our feet on the concrete as we marched. and they had rifles pointed at us. they had organized and all up
and down the street they had gotten together, and these men had their rifles pointed at us. they had organized it up and down the street. they had gotten together and these men had rifles pointing at us. that was the scariest time of my entire life. chicago, illinois. and we stayed in the slums in chicago to protest the housing conditions of blacks in chicago and poor people. martin had an apartment and coretta and martin and i had an apartment west side chicago, in the slums. i saw rats that looked like little kittens they were so big. and roaches, huge roaches, big as my thumb were running around.
we would change clothes in the car and put something up in the window. martin, coretta and i would change and then ralph and mine would change because we didn't want to bring our suitcases inside. we didn't want to carry these roaches back home. and we stayed there for two weeks to demonstrate the conditions under which people were living. and i told them, i said i'm leaving now, i can't take this anymore, i'm going home, because
we have proven our point, that the slums in chicago were just unbearable. so after those two weeks, we left but that's what we did to demonstrate the housing situation in chicago. >> i have a question with regard to dr. abernathy's political relationship with ronald reagan and the backlash within sort of the black community, the sort of civil rights -- >> oh, please. you know what? ronald reagan promised that ralph and jose met with you, that he was going to do, you know, some things for blacks. you know, he was an actor. [ laughter ]
and they believed him. even though he did not have a record of doing that. but, you know, how dare anybody think these so-called civil rights folks, that they can stand in judgment on what you do with your voice or your influence? nobody had walked the line in ralph abernathy's shoes. and who in the ham fat were they to decide that they could question what he did? what rules did they change? what laws did they change? around, you know, you have all these folk who is say they shouldn't have done this, shouldn't have done that. what did you do other than take an opportunity to do an interview and criticize somebody is. the folks he had criticized had not opened one door that you
walked into. when i came to atlanta, it was a closed city. and the first black hide they put her in a nurse's uniform with a cap on her head right over that bridge, and she was -- and when we got ready to integrate rich's, mr. rich said that's what had to happen, and that's what happened. she was in a nurse's uniform in the infants department. and we said okay, we going to boycott rich's. we boycotted rich's when we got ready to integrate. davidson's, which was macy's branch, macy's said integrate, and they had the black sales clerks. but rich's, no. they had one black woman, and they put her in the infant department. i can tell you about atlanta. we integrated coca-cola.
everybody drinks coca-cola. but it didn't just happen. it didn't just happen. we had breadbasket, and we put one bread company out of business because the blacks took their business away from them. and coca-cola didn't want us to integrate them -- i mean they didn't want to integrate. but we said black folk drink coca-cola, we boycotting coca-cola, and we could not get -- moorehouse college had machines in the dormitory and on the campus. we were shocked they didn't move
them. but we boycotted coca-cola, and that's how coca-cola changed, because all they had was men -- white men drove the trucks, and the black men got out of the trucks and took the crate into the stores and stacked them. those were the jobs that black folk had, and that's why we took coca-cola first. but we integrated this city. so when anybody say anything about what -- i say no, no, no, you can't tell me anything about atlanta. we paid our dues here. >> what was your relationship like with other civil rights women such as gene childs young and coretta scott king and evelyn lowry after the height of the movement, after '68, on into the '80s and '90s? >> well, coretta and i were
friends. our families, our children grew up together. we vacationed together. we traveled across the country with our families. gene young and i grew up in the same county, as i said before. and our children were together, and we were friends. you asked me about somebody else. >> evelyn lowry. >> they were not really in the
movement with us. and i just have to tell the truth. sol after the movement reverend lowry was in mobile. we were in montgomery. and during the time that we were integrating atlanta, they were not a part of it, so -- >> what kind of activities were you involved in? >> sclc women -- should i tell it? >> please.
>> sclc women was my baby. >> really. >> the women came to me, my husband was president of sclc and asked me to organize them. and he took it to the board of sclc. reverend lowry was the chairman of the board and he protested and said it would be like having two separate organizations. juanita needs to come on and work with us here. so my husband said, well, i'm not going to have any fight over my wife having having an organization, so he dropped it. to when he dropped it, he gave it to his wife. that's how sclc women was formed.
>> and it is a separate organization. >> it is a separate organization, but it couldn't be a separate organization with juanita abernathy chairing and ralph abernathy as president. so that's the truth from here to heaven. >> one last question and we'll need to cut it off. >> could you talk about vivian and her involvement and intersections with her? >> they were in illinois for the most part and octavia was a very nice person and a very active person until she died. really ct's back on. and she was a very wonderful
woman and very, very assertive but you would never know it. because-her quiet spirit -- people ignore you if you're not vocal, but gene young was very active. and gene had a house by the side of the road just like i did. always some folks from the movement in that house and always some folk in that house. i could never tell who was coming. and every day, i cooked as my
mother did. always prepared enough food so they could eat. and i always prepared enough food -- everybody knows me as a cook, and i used to resent it during movement because i said i got brains. i know folk who can't read their names in boxcar letters but can cook, so don't just relegate me to the level of a cook, so i always had food so people could come to our home and my husband always felt that he could bring people to our house, because i always made them feel welcome. and the discussions, the strategy sessions were held in our house for every movement. they were held in my house. because i was always in montgomery, it was my house. 1327 south hall street.
in atlanta, it was our home. the strategy sessions were held in my house. of course, i was always present. >> one last question, then we're going to give it over the her son, kwame abernathy. >> ms. abernathy, would you please feel free to discuss i guess the nature of the relationship between your husband and dr. king throughout time? >> okay. good question. vernon johns you heard me refer to was martin's predecessor at dexter avenue baptist church. vernon johns was my husband's mentor.
and he brought martin luther king to my house in montgomery. when he preached his initial sermon, vernon was coming as our guest minister for that sunday, and martin was coming as the guest preacher at dexter. so he rode down from atlanta to montgomery with martin, and martin dropped reverend johns at my house and i had prepared dinner for him because i knew what he liked. ralph tried to get martin to stay for dinner, and vernon told him that you better stay here
and eat because where you're going i know it's not going to be as good as the food juanita has planned, because he knew the membership at dexter, and he told him, you should stay here and eat. but he said, no, they are prepared for me, so i have to go on. but that's when i met him. when martin came to preach his initial sermon. my husband had met him when he was a student at a.u. working on his masters and martin but in moorehouse, and ralph had a date with the young lady, had made a date with a young lady and she told him -- she cancelled the date and told him that she was ill and couldn't go to the affair. and my husband went on anyway to the affair, and the young lady
appeared at the affair with martin luther king. [ laughter ] and that was his initial meeting with her, when she told him he was ill, so that's how they met, when he was at atlanta university, and then they met again when vernon brought him to our house. in montgomery, when he came to pastor, but he knew him in atlanta. i did not know him then because i was not in atlanta. did that answer your question finally? >> no, ma'am. >> what else? >> i want to know the nature of that relationship. >> oh, they were inseparable, okay?
to the point that reverend king sr. said he could call martin in alabama on mississippi and call ralph in new york and ask a question and would get the same answer and they would not have talked. that's how much they were in sync with each other. he said the two thought alike and were like brothers as much as a.d. and martin were. they were friends, and ralph would have been standing on the balcony in memphis but he had a tough beard, and it took him an hour cutting to cut his beard.
had to go this way, that way, this way, that way, and he had to shave, and martin had dressed, and they shared the same room, the two beds are still there. if you go there, you'll see it. and he was putting on aftershave lotion when martin stood on the balcony. and he heard something that sounded like a firecracker and looked down and it was the heel -- the bottom of martin's shoe, and he ran to the balcony and there he was, and he lift him up, his head up and held him and said, martin, this is ralph, this is ralph, and he tried to
say something, ralph said. but he couldn't. and one of the young men, i won't call his name, was just crying and going on and ralph said -- and ralph did not curse, he said so-and-so, get the ambulance. it's not time to cry. well, my husband had been a soldier in world war ii, and he headed a bah tall onin germany when they were fighting, so he was not afraid. he was -- he was strong. he was just a strong, strong man. and he went to the hospital, and he and bernard lee said to the doctor, whatever you do to him we are going to see it. we are going into the operating room. and they went in the operating room. they tried to keep them out. said oh, no, no, no, whatever you do to him we are going to see it. and he was gone by then.
as soon as they got him in, he was gone. but they were friends. they were friends. no doubt about it. in fact, there was not a week that i can remember that martin was not in my house two or three times in a week's time. most nights on his way in. the last stop would be at our house here in atlanta and montgomery before he'd go home. they were friends. and after he passed, ralph mourned. the whole movement mourned and everybody was saying ralph
abernathy's leadership was mourning. it was a different kind. and it was not any inferior leadership. about moving. every bit of that strategy was planned. because ralph abernathy was nobody's stupid man. he was brilliant. he was smart. you can check the school records. he was smart. and god had it planned that way, i think. otherwise it would have been a rivalry.
and now it -- i was telling me daughter the other day in germany, she said, what jealousy, mother? i said, i don't know. but now they're writing that. because you can't write the truth. you have to have something negative to say. it was a movement. for god's sake, tell the truth about it. it doesn't have to be something negative, somebody jealous of somebody else. when martin said he would take the leadership of the montgomery bus route, i said, i'll support you 100%, and he did. and as tlc was organized the night my house was bombed.
they were here in atlanta. that's why i was alone, staying in mrs. king, sr.'s house when they bombed my house. and i called her, called ralph and she got ralph to the phone when the house was bombed. they were friends. there was no jealousy. that's the spin people put on it because they are projecting what they would have felt had they been in that position. so now that's what they're writing. but you have to correct those lies. i call them lies because that's
what they were. does that answer it? [ inaudible ] >> well that's what -- you know, that's what's just watching right now. they were best friends. they didn't move without the other. [ inaudible ] so he was less than. martin had a hierarchy. ralph and martin luther king were the only two people in the civil rights movement who were never paid one red cent. not one dime. and the baptist church paid their salary. montgomery improvement association never paid them one
penny. scoc never paid martin luther king when we was president and they never paid ralph when she was president. so let's get that straight. never. the west baptist street church paid ralph's salary. and ebenezer paid martin luther king's salary. and when they went on speaking engagements, they were paid. the movement never paid them a dime. and they are the only two people who were not on the payroll. and ralph abernathy was treasurer. he signed the checks when they were paid. let's get it straight. they were not paid one penny. they did it out of loyalty and dedication.
and i don't know many people today who would do that kind of -- make those kinds of sacrifices and not be paid. because everybody is on a payroll now. but they were not. and we did all right. my children went to school. they went to college. and from williams to the university of pennsylvania law school. so they got educated. one with went from overland to boston conservatory. donte finished emerson in drama and speech. so, we did all right. but the movement didn't pay us. that's all i want understood. >> ms. abernathy i'm afraid i'm going to have the cut it off. >> that's right. >> we've been given marching
orders by her to tell the truth. please join me in thanking her for doing so. [ applause ] thank you very much. here are some of oh our featured programs uh you will find this weekend on the c-span networks. saturday night at 8:00 p.m. eastern on c-span from the ex ploerers club, charlie duke. saturday evening, the president and ceo of the national council of the largest national hispanic civil rights and advocacy group in the united states. on c-span 2 saturday night at 10:00 on book tv's after words, chuck todd on president obama's performance in office.
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