Juanita Abernathy, 1931–2019
The civil rights activist who helped plan the Montgomery bus boycott
As the wife of the Rev. Dr. Ralph Abernathy, one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest allies, Juanita Abernathy often welcomed civil rights leaders into her home in Montgomery, Ala. But she was much more than a host. She taught voter education classes, housed Freedom Riders, and helped arrange the yearlong Montgomery bus boycott, which began after Rosa Parks refused to give up her public bus seat to a white man and was arrested. Abernathy designed the elaborate carpool system that got black workers to and from their jobs, some traveling in cars from a local funeral home. The boycott resulted in a Supreme Court decision that banned racial segregation in public transport. “I started when there were no cameras and no newspapers writing nice things about you,” Abernathy said of her activism. “But we kept going.”
She was born in Uniontown, Ala., “to a family of prosperous, rural dairy farmers and cattle owners,” said The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. As a teenager, Juanita once asked a white grocery store cashier to have a clerk—also white—carry her shopping bags to her car. When the cashier said the service was for whites only, Abernathy responded, “Well, if the boy can’t take my groceries to the car, then I guess he’ll just have to put them back on the shelves.” That defiance earned her threats from local whites, but endeared her to her future husband.
In 1957, the Ku Klux Klan firebombed Abernathy’s home while she was inside with her toddler daughter, said The New York Times. “Both escaped unharmed.” Undaunted, she attended the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. “It wasn’t about me,” she said. It was about “justice and equality…for all of God’s children.”