Interviewer: Paul Steckler (?)
Production Team: D
Interview Date: October 22, 1988
Camera Rolls: 4016-4019
Sound Rolls: 405-6
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Ralph Abernathy, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on October 22, 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.
We were talking about the organizing for the Poor People's Campaign, especially in the Southern states. Can you describe what it was like organizing the campaign, any stories you might remember?
Well, we did a great deal of, ah, planning and work while organizing for the Pe--Poor People's campaign. Ah, we used, ah, cars, and we used small chartered airplanes, and we went to, all over the state of Mississippi and, ah, Alabama. Ah, and where poor people lived, trying to organize and get them aroused. Ah, the Southern leg was to go to Washington, in large, large numbers. And ah, when Dr. King and I, ah, was devoted to this whole idea, and we wanted to personally contact as many people, ah, and we'd travel, and ate from grocery stores, from general stores, and travel on the backward roads.
Would you go to a lot of towns per day? Do you remember that at all?
Yes, I remember it so very well. We went to a lot of towns, ah, in the course of the day. We would make at least, ah, 10 or 15 towns in one particular day. Ah, I remember so very well, and so vividly, ah, once we had to go Tuscaloosa, Alabama. And ah, we, ah, discovered that, ah, the lights were not on in this small, ah, town. And so consequently, ah, ah, we had to go on all the way to Birmingham rather than stop at Tuscaloosa because there were no lights. And, ah, we had no way of, ah, landing without lights.
How were you traveling between for these towns?
We were traveling, ah, by, ah, ah, cars, and we were traveling by, ah, ah, small planes, chartered, small planes.
Let's stop it for a sec, OK?
During the travels to organize the campaign, do you remember what happened in Marks?
Yes, in Marks, Mississippi, yes, I well remember, um. We visited, ah, a daycare center. And Dr. King was moved to tears there. There was one apple, and ah, they took this, this apple and cut it into four pieces for four hungry waiting students. And when Dr. King saw that, and that is all that they had for lunch, he was, actually ended up crying. The tears came streaming down his cheek. And he had to leave the room.
I want to bring you back a little bit, back in time, early in 1967, Dr. King had taken a stand against the war in Vietnam, and there was a lot of national response. What was the shape of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference after that? Was there a clear direction as to where you were going?
Yes, ah, after Dr. King made the speech in New York at Riverside Church and came out against the war in Vietnam, ah, we were very, very clear as to our direction that we were going here, ah, at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in its national office. We knew that, ah, Dr. King had, ah, ventured into ah, international territory, and had to come out against the war in Vietnam, and ah, but we still had to win the battle against segregation and discrimination here at home. And ah, we could talk about Vietnam, ah, many, many, many miles away. But ah, our foremost and primary concern was to win the right to vote, to eliminate poverty and injustice in all forms right here in the United States of America. And we would address, ah, two issues, at the national level and at the international level.
I want to go back to march in support of the sanitation strikers in Memphis. You and Dr. King get to Memphis, and I believe you may have been running behind schedule. Start me from that and go into the march, describe your arrival, what you saw, what you felt and what happened.
Yes, I remember so very, very clearly that in the latter days of, ah, March, um, Dr. King and I were campaigning on behalf of the Poor People's Campaign, ah, in the state of New York and New Jersey. And ah, he wanted to stay, ah, up there, because he had some appointments that he wanted to fulfill, and ah, in New Jersey. Ah, and so he turned to me and said, Ralph, ah, I want you to go to Memphis this evening, because all of the national leaders, Roy Wilkins, ah, and ah, the head of the Urban League, ah, and ah, other, other persons had been into Memphis in support of the, ah, ah, the sanitation workers strike. And he was scheduled to be there this, that particular evening. And ah, I, naturally I was enjoying, ah, the reception that we had received in New York and New Jersey. And, ah, I didn't want to go and, ah, he said, Ralph, ah, you have to go, and, because I have to be over in Patterson, New Jersey, and they want me over there. And ah, you go down and speak for me. And so, ah, I agreed. Ah, and ah, flew down to Memphis. And Reverend Solomon Jones met me, ah, and took me into the mass meeting which was held in the Mason Temple, ah, Church. This was the headquarters church for the Church of God in Christ. And ah, it was a full church. And that church hold about, ah, 10 or 12,000 people. And ah, and we just had a great time that evening. And I, I delivered one of more, my most powerful speeches. And ah, and ah, I was taken to the Peabody Hotel, the only hotel that was unionized, ah, in Memphis. And ah, that, ah, I had never stayed in that hotel before, because it was formerly for Whites only. But ah, I went to, ah, I was taken there, and I spent the night there.
And the next day was the day that Dr. King came into town for the march?
That's the next day, Dr. King, ah, came, ah, into town for the march. And ah, the Invaders, ah, ah, Black group called the Invaders, um, ah, would not let Dr. King get out of the car. First, I had gone to the airport to meet Dr. King. And ah, Bernard Lee and ah, so, we could not get him from the car. And ah, finally Jim Lawson, the Reverend Jim Lawson, ah, decided that the best thing to do was to get started moving. Ah, and ah, we would not--
There you are, the march has turned violent, the police are putting on their gas masks, and you're about to let one last car in. What do you do?
At that moment, ah, Bernard Scott Lee, who was Dr. King's, ah, traveling assistant, ah, stopped the car and asked the young lady, ah, if he could use this car to get Dr. Abernathy and Dr. King out of this situation. And ah, and the young lady, ah, agreed, and she got over, and Bernard Lee became our driver. And ah, we were taken, ah, ah, down to the river, ah, the Mississippi River. And ah, and we stopped the, ah, motorcycle policemen at that point, and asked them, if we could use their service to get Dr. King out of, ah, the area. And he said, where do you want to go. And I said, ah, the Peabody Hotel. And he said, We cannot go to the Peabody Hotel, because there's nothing but violence over there. And ah, he said, ah, well, what about the Lorraine Motel. And the policeman said, we cannot go to the Lorraine Motel because, ah, there's nothing but violence over there. And tear gas is everywhere. And he said, well, I will take you, ah, ah, to a place. And undoubtedly they had radioed ahead, because they, he took us to the Headquarters Hotel of the Holiday Inn. Ah, and it is on the banks of the Mississippi River. And, ah, it's a plush hotel. Ah, and they already had waiting for us, ah, a suite, that had a living area and two bedrooms, and one was for Dr. King, and one was for Bernard Lee and myself.
Now, I've read that, that once you got up there, Dr. King got into bed and there were a lot of people who came to visit, and that his mood, maybe later on that night after people left was pretty extreme, and that you had a long conversation he was talking about what he was feeling. How was he feeling, and what, how did he express it to you?
Well, ah, there were not so many visitors permitted, ah, to come, that evening. Ah, because there was a curfew in the city, and this, ah, was the first time that, ah, violence had broken out on the march led by Dr. King. Even though, technically, ah, Jim Lawson had called the march off. But, ah, the young man from the Invaders were, was killed that evening. And so, ah, there was a lot of tension in the air, and ah, Dr. King was heartbroken, ah, because he didn't want to lead a violent march, he wanted his record to be clear. And he said to me, "ah, Ralph, ah, why don't we just step aside and let the violent forces run their course? Because they will soon run out." Ah, I said to him, "No, Martin, ah, we will remain non-violent and we will be actively engaged in non-violent activities, because violence is not the way. We cannot ever be free, ah, with ah, ah, violence. And ah, because violence destroys the hated as well as those who, ah, against evil in this nation." And I, I, I prevailed with him, but I didn't satisfy him. And he called New York, and California and he just, um, was most upset. Until the wee hours of the morning, ah, he finally fo--fell asleep, and ah, and ah, it was not very long, ah, after that, ah, the Invaders came and asked to speak to Dr. King.
Let's go back for one second. I've read someplace that he had talked about his depression that night. How would you describe it that night?
Well, it was more painful than I had ever experienced, I had ever seen Dr. King, and so much misery. Never had I seen him so upset and disturbed.
Let's go to the next day and the press conference. What was he trying to accomplish as he walked into that press conference. Did he talk to you about what he needed to do?
Well, ah, he didn't talk to me about it. Ah, he insisted that I hear the message of, ah, the Invaders, and hear their confession. And he took over the press conference, and said, ah, ah, I am going to conduct this press conference on the record, all, or, all, or, or off the record. You can ask any question you want, ask[SIC] of me. But ah, ah, I want to clear the air, and ah, they had a good press conference. And he was a giant of a person. And when we were back upstairs, I just had to hug him and said, Martin, you were so gigantic, you were so wonderful, he was, you were so great. And he said, ah, if I was great, ah, will you please get me out of Memphis?
Let me ask you about the mountaintop speech. You fly back into Memphis, you go to the Lorraine Motel. But Dr. King sends you by yourself to the Mason Temple. How did you get to be sent by yourself and how did he end up coming to give the speech?
Well, ah, there was a tornado warning in Memphis that evening. And it was raining, raining, and wind was blowing everywhere. I believe a little tornado came, ah, to Memphis also. And he knew that there would not be a big crowd. And he said to me, in the meeting, with the staff, ah, "Ralph, I want you to go and speak this evening at the mass meetings."" He had become so accustomed to large crowds, and ah, and I said, "oh no, don't send me. Ah, send, ah, Jesse, or Andy or one of the other fellows." And he said, ah, "Ralph, there is only person in the world that can speak for me. And that is Ralph David Abernathy. Will you go?" And I said, "Yes, you know I will go." And ah, and so, I went. And I saw only about 300 people, as many photographers, ah, more photographers than almost people in the church. And that, that is the same church that holds about 10 or 12,000 people. And so ah, when I got in, ah, and was seated, I knew that those photographers and those cameramen were looking for Dr. King. And it was not meant for me. And so, ah, I asked where is the nearest telephone. And I decided that I would go find that telephone and call for Dr. King. And Dr. King, ah, he said, "OK, Ralph, I will be right there." And I made a second pitch, ah, I said, ah, "Martin, you know I would not ask you to come, ah, ordinarily, but these people want to hear you, and they want to see you." And he said, ah, "David, that is not important, ah, I will be there. And I, have I ever told you that I would do anything that I did not do? And, I will be there as soon as the car can bring me over." And, ah, when he got over there to the church, ah, in 15 minutes, ah, ah, the camera, the cameron--cameramen were glad to see him, and the people were glad to see him, and, ah, the presiding officer, tells, says to me, Which one of you want to be first tonight?
OK. We were talking about that night. You introduced them and then Dr. King gives the speech. And it builds and it builds and it builds and it finally finishes. What did you see when he turned around at the end of the speech?
Well, I saw a, a great deal of ah, enthusiasm ah, over the fact that ah, we were going on and we were not going to let anybody stop us. And I don't think the people really felt that he, ah, felt that he was going to be assassinated at that particular time. And uh--
How did he look? What was his mood as he turned around?
As he turned around ah, he was uh--As he always did ah, he was looking ah, ah, ah, s--sad and ah, burdened and troubled, but ah, he looked a-as though he had ah, accomplished a goal, fulfilled a goal, preached a wonderful sermon, gave a wonderful message. And he--I could see satisfaction on his brow. And ah, I could see sadness and grief, ah, just ah, a typical ah, ah, freedom rally ah, experience.
Now late that night he stayed up pretty late and the next day started, one second, --
The next day, the last day, what were you doing at the Lorraine Motel? How did he spend his day?
Ah. We got up ah, and once we were dressed and ah, ah, we went to a meeting of the staff. Ah. And we ah, they came to our room for the meeting. And ah, ah, we talked about ah, going to Washington for the Poor People's Campaign when we would leave. And ah, and we finally ah, ordered lunch ah, while we were still in the meeting. He didn't eat breakfast and I didn't eat breakfast, but we were always ready to eat ah, lunch. And so um, he placed his order and ah, somebody was kind enough to place my order ah, an order of catfish. And he had ordered catfish. And we were continuing the meeting. And ah, finally the young lady never got my order right. And they brought two orders of catfish on the same plate. And we, he, they brought two separate ah, orders of salad. And he said, "Ralph, ah, don't worry the lady because we can eat from the same plate." And he ate some of my salad and he ate from his salad. And ah, we ate catfish from the same plate. And finally, we dismissed the ah, meeting because ah, the hearings were being held ah, on the injunction.
Why don't we stop there for a second, stop for a second.
OK, we're in the last moments past five o'clock and Dr. King walks out to the balcony, you're in the room. Describe what happens.
Well um, we were in conversation. I was standing in the room putting on some aromous[SIC] aftershave lotion or cologne. And ah, he had told me that ah, "Ralph, I want you to go with me. I would not go to Washington without you. And I want you to tell West Hunter Street Baptist Church that they have a revival that is greater than a natural and normal revival because we have to revive the soul of the nation." And he was saying to Jesse Jackson, "Be sure, Jesse, to get Ben Branch to play my favorite song. Ah. I wanted to hear it this evening, 'Precious Lord, Take My Hand'." And Jesse Jackson said ah, he would do that. And ah, then Reverend Jones, the driver, said ah, "Dr. King, you should wear your coat this evening." And he said, "OK, I'll get the coat." And I heard what sounded like a firecracker. And I jumped. And when I jumped I saw only his feet laying ah, on the balcony. And I immediately rushed to his side and I started patting his cheek, saying, "Martin, Martin, Martin. Don't be afraid. Don't be afraid. This is Ralph. This is Ralph. This is Ralph." And I got his attention. And he calmed down. His eyes were, ah, moving and, and he became very, very calm. And finally Andrew Young came up the steps and "Oh, God. Oh, God, Ralph. It is over." And I became angry with Andrew Young. And ah, said, "Don't you say that Andy. Don't you say that. It is not over." And Billy Kyle, whom we were going to eat with, came up and I said, "Billy get me an ambulance." And I heard nothing but a loud cry from our room. And I said, "Billy, keep yourself together. I want am an--an ambulance." And he said, "Ralph, all of the lines are busy. All of the lines are busy." But the FBI did call ah, the ambulance. And I went with him, rode with him in the back of the ambulance. And I committed civil disobedience and I would not leave the operating room. And finally the, the doctor came over to me and said, "You are Dr. Abernathy. And he will not survive. It will be an act of mercy because he would be paralyzed from his waist down and you may have your last moments with him." And I went over and took him in my arms. And he breathed his last breath.
Can you do me a favor and go back?
So picking it up with what you heard.
I heard what sounded like ah, a firecracker. And I rushed to him. And I kneeled[SIC] down and took his head up in my hands and said, "Martin, it will be all right. It will be all right, Martin. This is Ralph. This is Ralph. Everything is going to be all right."
That's fine. You were saying that after he died, I asked you what it was like. What was it like?
Well um. I felt that I had lost a, a part of me. I, I felt ah, that I had to walk this lonesome valley now by myself. I knew all of the people of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the staff, I knew, I knew them well. And I had worked with them. I had hired most of them. And I knew their weaknesses and I knew their strong points. But I felt that I would have to walk the valley of life the rest of my days by myself without Martin Luther King.
Why don't we stop it there for a second.
Thinking at that moment, what shape were you and the leadership of SCLC in? How did you get into the Poor People's Campaign then?
Well, we vowed that we were going to stand together and stick together. Jim Bevel, speaking for the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said, "I loved Dr. King in many respects. I loved Dr. King more than I loved Jesus. But Dr. King is now dead. But we have our leader. And our leader is Ralph David Abernathy. And we are going on to Washington, but by the way of Memphis."
So the staff was never in shock?
There were people who, individual people who, ah, would cry and, ah, weep. Andrew Young was the first one. Ah, ah, that had to make his way to ah, an area where he could give vent to his feelings. Ah. I had to cry. But I didn't cry until the next day when I saw Mrs. King, Coretta, coming for the body. I had held it back, all of my pent-up emotions, but I could not face Mrs. King without ah, knowing grief and giving vent to grief. Because I, I knew that ah, how, how much she had sacrificed and given in the cause of letting her husband lead the movement without any strings attached.
I want to finish up with one thing and I hate to ask you to do this one more time, but Bobby said there might have been some flutter in the camera. But also I wanted you to repeat it softer, going back one more time to the balcony scene. Could you do that again, but just soft throughout the whole thing?
And all of a sudden I heard ah, what sounded like a firecracker. And I jumped naturally. And I turned and saw only his feet. And I ran to him and took his head into my hands and began to pat his cheek and said, "Martin, this is Ralph. This is Ralph. This is Ralph. It will be all right. Everything is going to be all right. Everything is going to be all right, Martin." And at that time he relaxed. His eyes softly closed. And he heard me. And he believed me, that it would be all right.
That's good. Thank you.