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Judging Joshua : AND THE WALLS CAME TUMBLING DOWN by Ralph David Abernathy (Harper & Row: $22.50; 640 pp., illustrated)

November 12, 1989|Mary King | King's book on her experience as a white woman working in the civil rights movement, "Freedom Song" (William Morrow), was awarded a 1988 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award

The Rev. Ralph David Abernathy was the closest friend and confidant of Martin Luther King from the moment that Dr. King moved to Montgomery, Ala., in the summer of 1954 until he cradled King in his arms as he lay dying from an assassin's bullet in Memphis 14 years later.

The author shared with King their calling as Baptist pastors in the esteemed institution of the black church, but here the similarity ends. Unlike King, whose father was a city minister more famous in Atlanta than his internationally acclaimed son, Abernathy was one of 12 children in a self-supporting Black Belt Alabama cotton-farming family. His father "killed 30 to 40 hogs a year, and whenever we wanted beef he would kill a calf." With no public high school in that part of rural Alabama, the only avenue for those few blacks bound for college was an academy run by the district's black Baptist association.

Early on, Abernathy plants himself squarely in the center of King's life, beginning with the Montgomery bus boycott's new organization, the Montgomery Improvement Assn. Other accounts have described how King was first ensnared into a leadership role; in this firsthand narrative, Abernathy is "stunned" when King accepts the new organization's presidency, wishing he had nominated him himself.

Abernathy quickly recovered, was elected program chairman, and writes: "This structure meant that Martin and I did most of the work--he as the chief officer, I as the chief organizer of activities." He claims a division of labor: While King "was talking about strategy (the broad overall purpose of a campaign), I was thinking about tactics (how to achieve that strategy through specific actions)."

When he asserts that he and King "tried to meet for dinner every day" during the Montgomery years, the first question arises on the purpose of the book: This is something that would have been difficult under any circumstances, but particularly so for two married men with small children. As with all autobiography, Abernathy writes from a single point of view--his own--of how he shared both the travail and the glories of King's transcendent life. For example, in Abernathy's account, he and King peered together from the Abernathy window at sunrise on the first morning of the Montgomery boycott, anxious to see whether black riders would stay off the segregated buses to bring about the first citywide action of the civil-rights movement. In King's book, "Stride Toward Freedom," King recalls looking through his own window to check the buses, and there is no mention of Abernathy.

Abernathy's narrative is inextricably intertwined with their relationship, and this is the unique feature of the book. When King in 1960 finally yielded to his father's blandishments and left the Montgomery pulpit to assist in his father's church in Atlanta and to work out of the headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in that city, Abernathy followed suit after King found him an Atlanta church.

In Albany, Ga., where civil-rights workers were crowded into jails under despicable conditions, King and Abernathy were treated as celebrities and shared a single, albeit filthy, cell which, together, they scrubbed until it was "glistening." Local women plied them with platters of fried chicken, biscuits and apple pie.

Birmingham's Bull Connor called them the "Gold Dust Twins" and put them into separate cells saying, "These two have never been separate. . . . Put them in solitary." It is to this isolation from each other and the absence of their usual repartee that Abernathy attributes King's formulation of the now world-famous declaration of nonviolence, "Letter From a Birmingham Jail."

There are intriguing moments such as Abernathy's brief account of an older worker called "Sunshine" who quit the steel mills of Birmingham and pledged to die a Freedom Fighter. His memories of the Southern-cooked meals that marked various encounters are warmly human.

One night in Birmingham, while gripping the pulpit as he spoke, Abernathy's fingers felt an electronic listening device placed there by local police or FBI. "I want you to know, Mr. Doohickey," he exhorted the bug, "that we'll be marching by the hundreds . . . and going to fill the jailhouses, Mr. Doohickey."

When King first went to Montgomery he needed someone like Abernathy--an earthy and robust pastor who could guide him through the mazelike social structure of the only institution of power in the black community, the church. Indeed, as the years progressed, it would have been dangerous for King to have operated in the caldron of unrest and in the national eye without one comrade who always would puncture ostentation and scoff at cant. Such a friend, before whom no pretension was necessary, must have been prized by Martin Luther King.

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