Production Team: X
Interview Date: October 27, 1988
Camera Rolls: 4041
Sound Rolls: 416
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Juanita Abernathy, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on October 27, 1988, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
OK, Mrs. Abernathy, let's begin with what you think the role of women in SCLC in the movement was.
Hm. We were the movement. I guess that's a, an easy way to put it but, but technically yes. Um, the men sort of ran things but the women were actually the bodies. We were the foot soldiers. We were the protesters, the demonstrators. Women and children. And, and y--and teenagers. I won't say children. There was some little ones too. But um, we had a tremendous role because when there was a demonstration, when there was sit-in, women sat in and, and young people. College students and, and women. Um. The men ran the movement, but we were the actual bodies that made it happen.
Let's move on to something that we discussed before. Not many people understand that Dr. King was anything but a saint. You talked about his having a sense of humor. Could you give us some feeling about his sense of humor?
Oh, he'd tease you to death. Um. Um. I can't think of any one specific instance but um, he would for instance--If we came out of a red hot situation where we almost didn't make it, he would laugh about oh, you know, I thought that man was going to kill me. And you know, you, you, ah, you were kind of scared too. You were shaking. That one where I thought maybe I had to kind of get you together. This kind of thing. And just we would end up laughing about something that was really horrible but he saw the humor in it. And it was these kinds of things that kept the pressure and tension down. And you didn't really you know, see it as such a horrible experience after it was over. You could laugh at yourself. And Dr. King was always that person who could make you laugh. Very, very humorous. A lot of folks didn't know that about him because most people saw him as that serious orator who was always an orator, and very stiff. But he was not like that, at all.
You told me about a joke that he had about Bull Connor in your ice cream. Could you tell us that?
Oh, well, they um, he would say always, "I make ice--homemade ice cream and I'm good." And ah, he would say that if Bull Connor and those could eat my ice cream we'd ser--we'd solve the race problem because one or two servings would get them on our side and if they could eat my ice cream there would be no more race problem."
OK. Let's cut for a minute.
OK, just for my own peace of mind, Mrs. Abernathy, um, let me just ask you simply, did Dr. King have a sense of humor?
Of course. Tremendous sense of humor. And was always laughing. Always. He um, he'd tease you to death and you couldn't get angry about the tease. He--You would, you know, you'd laugh and he would make you laugh about whatever it was that he was teasing you about. Whether you liked being teased or not you'd end up laughing about it. It was that kind of--He's that kind of personality that even if you wanted to be stiff and depressed or cold around him, it wouldn't last. So that's something that most people didn't know about him because he looked very formal, you know. And reserved. But that's not, that was not always his personality. He had a warm pash--compassionate um, friendly, giving, caring, down-to-earth side of him.
Let's continue on that down to earth side. You said that he'd like to come over to your house to eat. Could you tell us about that?
Well, I always had a lot of food. Um. I guess my upbringing. I always cooked enough for three or four extra people in the event somebody was coming by. And he would always come and first thing he'd do is go to the kitchen, look on the stove, take the lid up off the pot. And I would always say, "You haven't washed your hands. Wash your hands before you lift the lid off of my pot." He'd go straight, take the lid up, look at what was in there and if it was anything he wanted to taste, get a fork and taste it. And he'd go to the refrigerator, just, just be at home. He felt very comfortable coming here and very comfortable when he got here.
Now, could you tell me again about the last night that Dr. King had dinner at your house here in Atlanta. It was after the Memphis march, and if you could make reference to the fact that it was after the Memphis march, I'd appreciate it.
OK. The, the, the, the march had--They'd had the violence at the march in Memphis. And he and Ralph had decided that they were going to take us out to dinner. So instead of going out to dinner Martin called and asked me that afternoon if he brought the fish would I cook it? So I told him, yes, I'd cook it. But he didn't have to bring fish to my house. He said, "Oh, no. I'll bring the fish." He went and got the fish and it was croaker. We like croaker fish. And ah, he and Coretta came over. And I cooked. I fried fish all night it seemed. But really, I fried fish and fried fish and more fish and more fish. And um, we ate the fish. But he wanted to come here because if you go to a restaurant then you got to answer questions about, well, what happened to the march? Why the violence? And, and he was not in the kind of mood to, you know, to deal with answering those questions because--Dr. King was very sensitive about anything that was in opposition to what his philosophy was. And he didn't want anybody identifying him with the violence that had taken place, 'cause you know some of it was done by us, by Blacks. And um, that hurt. And he just sort of felt that you know, part of his reputation had been damaged and tarnished a bit. So he didn't want to have to deal with answering questions on that. And coming here, he would not encounter that. So we sat that night. And talked about light things. And talked about me. And talked about Ralph. We talked about each other. Talked about the movement. Talked about folk in it. And just, just, just chitter-chat. But nothing serious. And we did not talk about Memphis. The news came on. And whenever there was a flash on TV about it he got very quiet and he was really, really sort of depressed. And I think he was more depressed that night I believe than I'd ever seen him, because--the violence really got to him that, that took place in Memphis. That really got to him. And, we stayed away from it as much as possible. But naturally, the minute a news flash came on his ears sharpened. And he forgot we were even in the room then. But then we would again take him away from that kind of thinking as much as possible, until we all fell asleep. And everybody balled up on the sofa. There were two love seats here. He was on one love seat and Ralph was on the other. Coretta was on the sofa in the living room. And we all just fell asleep in different parts of the house. And we literally slept here all night. But he was really, really depressed over the violence that had taken place in Memphis. And I guess weighing heavy on him now that I look back was probably the fact that possibly he was nearing his end--because I sincerely believe he knew it. Because I think if you live close enough to God I don't think it slips up on you. You may not know exactly when but there's an inner feeling that lets you know you're near. And I think he knew it.
OK, so SCLC after Dr. King's assassination.
After the assassination I think we were more or less in shock. We um, and mourning. We--knew that the inevitable probably would come one day. But we weren't ready for it. And certainly not at this period, not at the period where we had the most powerful forces coming together in history which was the Mexican-Americans, the Indians, Blacks and Whites going to Washington to say "Here I am. You don't know it. You can't say I don't exist." So, "And I've come to tell you what I want from America." And certainly we didn't anticipate his death at that time because this was going to change history and bring America where she should be. But in actuality, that's why he's dead. That's why they killed him, because of that powerful force coming together. So America was mourning. All of us.