Abernathy was born the son of a farmer in Linden, Alabama. After serving in the army during World War II, he enrolled at Alabama State University, in Montgomery, Alabama, graduating with a degree in mathematics in 1950. His involvement in political activism began in college while he was a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, when he led demonstrations protesting the lack of heat and hot water in his dormitory and the dreadful food served in the cafeteria. In 1951 he earned a M.A. in sociology from Atlanta University (later Clark Atlanta University) and then became pastor of the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. While living in Montgomery he formed a close and enduring partnership with Dr. Martin Luther King.
Read a 1968 speech by Ralph Abernathy memorializing Dr. Martin Luther King, free from the Northeastern University library.
In 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, Abernathy and King organized the bus boycott in Montgomery. After a year of the boycott, it finally ended when the United States Supreme Court affirmed the U.S. District Court's ruling that segregation on buses was unconstitutional.
Abernathy was Martin Luther King's Number Two in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, holding the official title of Secretary-Treasurer. Abernathy was with Martin Luther King in Memphis when King was assassinated; in fact, they shared Room 307 at the Lorraine Motel the night before.
Abernathy assumed the presidency of the SCLC after King's death. Less than a week after the assassination, Abernathy led a march to support striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. In May 1968 he, among others including Jesse Jackson, organized the Poor People's Campaign (PPC) March on Washington, D.C.Hoping to bring attention to the plight of the nation's impoverished, he constructed huts in the nation's capital, precipitating a showdown with the police. The settlement was named "Resurrection City"; Abernathy himself slept in a hotel during the campaign. On June 19 he held a speech at the Lincoln Memorial, in front of tens of thousands of black and white citizens.
Lacking King's leadership and vision, the PPC at Resurrection City quickly became an embarrassment to the civil rights movement. Its demands were unreasonable, and did not fit the political mood of the country. Abernathy began to lose control of the situation to more fiery leaders like Jesse Jackson. Rapes and robberies among the camping protesters became a problem, and there was no police force to keep order. Eventually on June 24, the federal government had to move in, using force to disband the protesters. Abernathy was jailed for nearly three weeks following the collapse of this ill-planned enterprise.
On June 15, 1969, the eve of the launch of Apollo 11, Abernathy arrived at Cape Canaveral together with several hundred members of the Poor People's Campaign to protest the money being spent on space exploration, while so many people remained poor. He was met by Thomas O. Paine, the administrator of NASA, who was informed that in the face of such suffering, space flight represented an inhuman priority and funds should be spent instead to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend the sick, and house the homeless. Paine told Abernathy that the advances in space exploration were child's play compared to the tremendously difficult human problems of the society, and told him that "if we could solve the problems of poverty by not pushing the button to launch men to the moon tomorrow, then we would not push that button." On the day of the launch, Abernathy led a small group of protesters in the restricted guest viewing area of the space center, chanting, "We are not astronauts, but we are people." The protest, which had originally been planned by Martin Luther King, failed to generate any support for Abernathy's cause.
Abernathy resigned in 1977 to seek a Georgia Congressional seat. That same year he ran unsuccessfully for a Georgia congressional seat.
In 1980, Abernathy was the most prominent African American to endorse Ronald Reagan, along with Hosea Williams and Charles Evers. Abernathy later said he was very disappointed with the Reagan administration's civil rights policies, and he did not endorse him for reelection in 1984.
Although some people believe that the American Freedom Coalition, which Abernathy later founded with Robert Grant, was controlled by Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the Coalition has denied those allegations. American Freedom Coalition acknowledges that it receives major funding from Moon's Unification Church and that it works in partnership with The Washington Times, CAUSA, the American Constitution Committee, and other Moon-controlled organizations. Abernathy served as Vice President of American Freedom Coalition until his death in 1990.
His youngest daughter is actress and writer Donzaleigh Abernathy. Abernathy died on April 17, 1990.
Abernathy received many awards, most notably honorary degrees from Long Island University in New York, Morehouse College in Atlanta, Kalamazoo College in Michigan, and his alma mater, Alabama State University. Interstate 20 and Abernathy Road, in Atlanta, are named in his honor.