Juanita Abernathy, civil rights icon, has died at age 89

ATLANTA — Juanita Abernathy, a civil rights icon and widow of the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, has died at age 89.

A family member confirmed to Channel 2 investigative reporter Mark Winne that Abernathy died of natural causes Thursday.

Her family called her the “last remaining person who was actively involved from ‘day one’ of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Civil Rights Movement.”

Juanita Abernathy came of age as a civil rights icon right at the dawn of the modern movement. She was the young wife of Ralph Abernathy, who was pastoring a church in Montgomery. The couple got to know another young preacher and his wife, Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King. Their friendship and activism helped reshape America’s cultural and political landscape.


It was at the Abernathys’ kitchen table, often following a meal prepared by Juanita Abernathy, that the early strategies of the civil rights movement – particular the Montgomery bus boycott – were hatched.

"When I started off in '55 in Montgomery, recognition and honor was nowhere in my mind," Abernathy told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a 2013 article. "I started when there were no cameras and no newspapers writing nice things about you, instead they were writing all sorts of ugly things. But we kept going. It wasn't about us. It wasn't about me. It has always been about right and righteousness. Justice and equality. Not just for me and my family, but for all of God's children."

In January 1957, while Ralph Abernathy and Dr. King traveled to Atlanta to establish the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Abernathy and her infant daughter survived the bombing of their home by white supremacists.

Ralph Abernathy died of a heart attack in 1990 at age 64.

Juanita Abernathy continued working after the height of the movement and the deaths of many of its leaders, including serving on boards such as those of MARTA’s and the Fulton County Development Authority.

Messages poured in Thursday night as many remembered the civil rights leader. Rep. John Lewis released the following statement:

"I was saddened to hear about the passing of Mrs. Juanita Abernathy today, the wife of the late Reverend David Abernathy, the right hand to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

"Juanita could have lived a comfortable life.  Her father was a prosperous dairyman and cotton farmer in Uniontown, Alabama who could afford to send her to a boarding school in Selma in the 1940s.  But she decided to dedicate her life to building a society more at peace with itself, to the advocacy for simple justice, and a commitment to the public good. She worked tirelessly toward goals that were bigger than herself, and because she did she will go down in history as an icon for equal justice in America.
"Juanita marched on the front lines of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, was a cornerstone of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and a fearless advocate, in her own right, for non-violent direct action. Her life is a testament to the towering role that women played in the Civil Rights Movement. The men received most of the credit, but behind the scenes women were often the doers, the organizers, and advocates, who formed the backbone of the struggle. Juanita Abernathy was no exception and was often a shining example.

"She endured the terrorism of harassing telephone calls to her home, threats on her life and her husband’s life, the doubts of naysayers who feared the movement would fail, the sleepless nights of worry and the suffered the slings and arrows of hate that were a part of non-violent change in this country. She somehow survived the bombing of her home in Montgomery while she was home alone with her infant child.  But because Juanita Abernathy was bold, courageous, outspoken and deeply committed to the cause of social justice, we all live in a better country today than we did almost 65 years ago. Juanita Abernathy was a dear friend and my sister on the frontlines, in the struggle for change. My heart goes out to her children, Juandalynn, Kwame and Donzaleigh.  Their mother was one of a kind, and she will be deeply missed."

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution contributed to this article.