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Juanita Abernathy, a force in the civil rights movement, dies at 88

NEW YORK — 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, Ala., marches in 1965.


Representative John Lewis, a Democrat from Georgia and a civil rights-era leader, said in a statement Mrs. Abernathy had been “my sister on the front lines” in the struggle for change.

She was there as the 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 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.

The boycott was the first large-scale demonstration in the United States against segregation. It lasted 13 months, with the Abernathys’ kitchen table the setting for strategy sessions. Juanita Abernathy was instrumental in organizing a plan to ensure 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 US Supreme Court decision in 1956 that outlawed segregation by race in Montgomery’s public transportation system and by extension anywhere 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.

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.”