Juanita Abernathy, who helped organize the Montgomery bus boycott and took part in other pivotal protests at the outset of the civil rights era alongside the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, her husband and a leader of the movement, died on Thursday at a hospital in Atlanta. She was 88.
The cause was a stroke, her son Kwame Abernathy said.
Juanita Abernathy organized, marched and campaigned for voting rights for African Americans and to integrate the schools in the 1950s and ’60s. She taught voter-education classes, housed Freedom Riders and accompanied her husband to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and to the Selma-to-Montgomery, Alabama, marches in 1965.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the former civil rights-era leader, said in a statement that Abernathy had been “my sister on the front lines” in the struggle for change.
She was there as the civil rights movement took shape in 1955 in Montgomery, where her husband and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — both young, unknown pastors at the time — organized the Montgomery bus boycott.
The boycott was called after Rosa Parks, a black seamstress, was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger. Juanita Abernathy typed up leaflets asking black people not to patronize Montgomery city buses.
“She got out her trusty Royal typewriter from college and carbon paper,” her son said. “She said that if she typed with a heavy hand, she could make seven copies at once.”
King and Ralph Abernathy distributed the flyers around town, and the boycott — the first large-scale demonstration in the United States against segregation — was underway.
It lasted 13 months, with the Abernathys’ kitchen table the setting for strategy sessions. Juanita Abernathy was instrumental in organizing a plan to ensure that people could get to work without taking a bus. Using extra cars offered by a local funeral home, she arranged elaborate car pools to get people around town.
The boycott led to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1956 that outlawed segregation by race in Montgomery’s public transportation system and by extension anywhere else in the country.
The ruling inflamed white supremacists, and the Abernathys became the targets of death threats and harassing phone calls. On Jan. 10, 1957, their house was firebombed — the same day that four churches that supported the boycott, including her husband’s, were also bombed.
Ralph Abernathy was away at the time with King organizing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which became the driving force of the civil rights movement. Juanita Abernathy, who was pregnant, was at home at the time with her toddler daughter, but both escaped unharmed. Death threats, however, continued for more than a decade.
Two members of the Ku Klux Klan later confessed to the bombings and were indicted. Both were acquitted of all charges by an all-white jury while spectators cheered.
Lewis said that men got most of the credit for the civil rights movement but that behind the scenes “women were often the doers, the organizers and advocates who formed the backbone of the struggle.” Juanita Abernathy, he said, “was no exception and was often a shining example.”
Juanita Odessa Jones was born on Dec. 1, 1931, in Uniontown, Alabama, the youngest of eight children of Alexander and Ella (Gilmore) Jones. Her parents were successful dairy, beef and cotton farmers. The Tuskegee Institute designated them the most successful black farmers in the so-called Black Belt in the 1940s.
Juanita was educated at Selma University Prep School, a boarding school for black students; she met Ralph Abernathy when she was in ninth grade and he was in the Army, and they married in 1952, after she received her Bachelor of Science degree in business education from Tennessee State University in Nashville.
The couple had five children, one of whom, Ralph David Abernathy Jr., died in infancy. Another son, Ralph David Abernathy 3d, died of cancer in 2016. Ralph Abernathy died in 1990.
In addition to her son Kwame, Abernathy is survived by two daughters, Juandalynn and Donzaleigh Abernathy; four grandchildren; and a sister, Eloise Percival.
Her first job out of college was teaching high school business education courses. She was also a secretary for the Alabama NAACP chapter when it was supporting a black man who had been accused of raping a white woman. The case was said to have provided the inspiration for Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
The family moved to Atlanta in 1961, where Juanita Abernathy and the Kings worked to integrate the first public schools in Atlanta; the effort led to wider school integration throughout the South.
At the same time, she fought for the creation of a National Food Stamp Program for low-income families and a National Free Meal Program for public school children.
After King’s assassination in 1968, “the world changed” for Juanita Abernathy, Kwame Abernathy said. Having gone through the civil rights struggles, he said, his mother sought a less tumultuous life and joined the Mary Kay cosmetics company.
To the surprise of no one, she was an expert saleswoman and motivator and rose to become a national sales director. At one point she ranked second in the nation in recruitment. During her 20 years with the company she attained sales levels that qualified her for a new car every two years — most often, the company’s trademark pink Cadillac.
Yet she continued her civil rights and civic work. She traveled around the world three times on peace missions, and in 1972 helped lead women on a peace march in Northern Ireland. She was shot at with rubber bullets.
Abernathy served on the boards of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority and other civic organizations. In 2007, she campaigned for Barack Obama for president. At his inauguration, she was seated in a place of honor, directly behind former President Bill Clinton.
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