Judging Joshua : AND THE WALLS CAME TUMBLING DOWN by Ralph David Abernathy (Harper & Row: $22.50; 640 pp., illustrated)

King's book on her experience as a white woman working in the civil rights movement, "Freedom Song" (William Morrow), was awarded a 1988 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award

The Rev. Ralph David Abernathy was the closest friend and confidant of Martin Luther King from the moment that Dr. King moved to Montgomery, Ala., in the summer of 1954 until he cradled King in his arms as he lay dying from an assassin's bullet in Memphis 14 years later.

The author shared with King their calling as Baptist pastors in the esteemed institution of the black church, but here the similarity ends. Unlike King, whose father was a city minister more famous in Atlanta than his internationally acclaimed son, Abernathy was one of 12 children in a self-supporting Black Belt Alabama cotton-farming family. His father "killed 30 to 40 hogs a year, and whenever we wanted beef he would kill a calf." With no public high school in that part of rural Alabama, the only avenue for those few blacks bound for college was an academy run by the district's black Baptist association.

Early on, Abernathy plants himself squarely in the center of King's life, beginning with the Montgomery bus boycott's new organization, the Montgomery Improvement Assn. Other accounts have described how King was first ensnared into a leadership role; in this firsthand narrative, Abernathy is "stunned" when King accepts the new organization's presidency, wishing he had nominated him himself.

Abernathy quickly recovered, was elected program chairman, and writes: "This structure meant that Martin and I did most of the work--he as the chief officer, I as the chief organizer of activities." He claims a division of labor: While King "was talking about strategy (the broad overall purpose of a campaign), I was thinking about tactics (how to achieve that strategy through specific actions)."

When he asserts that he and King "tried to meet for dinner every day" during the Montgomery years, the first question arises on the purpose of the book: This is something that would have been difficult under any circumstances, but particularly so for two married men with small children. As with all autobiography, Abernathy writes from a single point of view--his own--of how he shared both the travail and the glories of King's transcendent life. For example, in Abernathy's account, he and King peered together from the Abernathy window at sunrise on the first morning of the Montgomery boycott, anxious to see whether black riders would stay off the segregated buses to bring about the first citywide action of the civil-rights movement. In King's book, "Stride Toward Freedom," King recalls looking through his own window to check the buses, and there is no mention of Abernathy.

Abernathy's narrative is inextricably intertwined with their relationship, and this is the unique feature of the book. When King in 1960 finally yielded to his father's blandishments and left the Montgomery pulpit to assist in his father's church in Atlanta and to work out of the headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in that city, Abernathy followed suit after King found him an Atlanta church.

In Albany, Ga., where civil-rights workers were crowded into jails under despicable conditions, King and Abernathy were treated as celebrities and shared a single, albeit filthy, cell which, together, they scrubbed until it was "glistening." Local women plied them with platters of fried chicken, biscuits and apple pie.

Birmingham's Bull Connor called them the "Gold Dust Twins" and put them into separate cells saying, "These two have never been separate. . . . Put them in solitary." It is to this isolation from each other and the absence of their usual repartee that Abernathy attributes King's formulation of the now world-famous declaration of nonviolence, "Letter From a Birmingham Jail."

There are intriguing moments such as Abernathy's brief account of an older worker called "Sunshine" who quit the steel mills of Birmingham and pledged to die a Freedom Fighter. His memories of the Southern-cooked meals that marked various encounters are warmly human.

One night in Birmingham, while gripping the pulpit as he spoke, Abernathy's fingers felt an electronic listening device placed there by local police or FBI. "I want you to know, Mr. Doohickey," he exhorted the bug, "that we'll be marching by the hundreds . . . and going to fill the jailhouses, Mr. Doohickey."

When King first went to Montgomery he needed someone like Abernathy--an earthy and robust pastor who could guide him through the mazelike social structure of the only institution of power in the black community, the church. Indeed, as the years progressed, it would have been dangerous for King to have operated in the caldron of unrest and in the national eye without one comrade who always would puncture ostentation and scoff at cant. Such a friend, before whom no pretension was necessary, must have been prized by Martin Luther King.

This story alone--of friendship, devotion, commitment, loyalty--would have made a profound contribution to our fathoming of King and thus to our understanding of an epoch. There are glimpses of a complementary relationship between the erudite, polished King and Abernathy, a former Army sergeant who was close to the people. (Even at night there was contrast between them, King needing "a certain amount of comfort in order to sleep well" while Abernathy was "able to go to sleep anywhere and in any position.")

The book sounds a somber note as it moves into King's later years. Abernathy recalls that in Selma, in 1965, following a meeting with President Johnson, King "suddenly collapsed under the pressure and had to be hospitalized with the same mysterious ailment that always plagued him during these rugged campaigns." In locale after locale, Abernathy describes King's bouts with a recurring "stomach virus," a physical manifestation of psychological vulnerability that is paradoxically appealing when viewed against the awesome and unassailable stature that a guilty nation has posthumously bestowed on King over the last 20 years.

King's sexual behavior is given new detail by Abernathy's account and has generated controversy. The question will be why this account was written. On the night before he was killed in Memphis, according to Abernathy, King stepped out of a bedroom with one woman after 1 a.m. and spent time with another between 3 and dawn. A third woman with whom he was involved came to their hotel room in early morning and left upset at having found his bed empty. When the third woman returned after 8 a.m., a tiff ensued in which, according to Abernathy, King "shouted and knocked her across the bed" when she criticized Abernathy for covering up for King.

The portrait of King is thus kaleidoscopic. The irony is that "And the Walls Came Tumbling Down" may be the most intimate personal view of Martin Luther King we shall ever have: He was both fun-loving and deeply serious, on the one hand, a cosmopolite, and, on the other, a private man who asked his pal Abernathy never to disagree with him in public. According to this account, King had a gift for mimicry, was always interested in what was being prepared for dinner and fantasized about retirement to a south Georgia farm when the pressures became extreme. Unable to use a razor because of tender skin, he used a depilatory, which "was one reason he was always late."

Forever studying leather-bound and gilt-edged tomes of 18th- and 19th-Century sermons to inspire his own preaching, by Abernathy's account, King frequently lifted textual material from others' sermons and from famed educator Dr. Benjamin Mays. Toward the end, King was preoccupied, lost in "melancholy moodiness," and possessed of an ominous foreboding about the imminence of his death.

The reader must struggle to discern the true portrait, however, through an account that is sometimes out to settle old scores, often self-serving, and at times factually inaccurate.

Why did Abernathy write "And the Walls Came Tumbling Down"? It is clear that he did so neither to impart the truths of a great political upheaval nor to share the agonies and responsibilities of having been a great man's confessor. The inescapable conclusion is that the book was contrived to place its author at the center of the historic maelstrom of the civil-rights movement and that, by creating controversy, the book would be given importance it might otherwise lack.

Even the author's assertion that he was King's choice as successor is weakly self-justifying. Nothing in the book suggests that King's desire could have been based on anything other than comradeship because, despite his self-proclaimed role as tactician, Abernathy never explains decisions as if he were involved in their making or shows how a campaign was different because of his involvement.

"I was designated as his automatic successor," Abernathy writes, "in the event he were to die or be incapacitated; and when he was shot down in Memphis, I took over the direction of the organization as soon as I left the hospital. . . . But I had no part in devising or promoting this scheme, and it was only later that it occurred to me how resentful the others might have been . . . I'm sure it seemed to them that I was no more than an appendage to Martin. . . . What they didn't realize was the degree to which Martin depended on me for counsel when we were alone and how many of his ideas originated with me."

In describing how he was ultimately asked to leave the presidency of the SCLC, Abernathy chooses a face-saving run for Congress, but he does not tell us that even then the contest was divisive. He criticizes neither himself nor the SCLC. Such criticism as he offers is of personalities such as Stokely Carmichael or Jesse Jackson rather than of strategies.

Two of many omissions are noteworthy. It is virtually impossible to write about the American civil-rights movement between the time of the Montgomery bus boycott that began in 1955 and the Birmingham conflagration in 1963 without mentioning the student sit-ins that started in 1960 and the Freedom Rides that followed the next year. Abernathy has somehow managed this feat. He also omits any mention of the Nobel Peace Prize awarded King on behalf of the movement in 1964, although it is widely known that Abernathy behaved petulantly in Scandinavia at the time because he was not asked to share in it.

Some have suggested that the book was ghost-written. It is true that the book's voice changes when it departs from telling the essential story and becomes oddly sociological and distant in a way that hints at other hands.

You will not learn much about what we simply called "the movement" from this account. You will not discover why Albany, St. Augustine, or Birmingham were chosen, or what sustained momentum in between. You will not even read about the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or how it operated.

Abernathy is gratuitously negative about other civil-rights organizations, particularly the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), but he never explains tactical, historical or leadership-philosophy differences between SCLC and SNCC.

He uses his account to settle old grudges against Andrew Young and even more so against Jesse Jackson, about whom he has a chapter. He disputes, with strict chronological exactitude and the intensity of one who feels wronged, the past claims made by Jackson about his having been the last to hold the dying King. Despite the book's shortcomings, on this matter Abernathy's account is compelling.

Those who lament how few firsthand accounts have been published from within the galactic awakening that we called the civil-rights movement and who yearn for insight on its quandaries will be disappointed. Others will be, or have been, outraged. Because of this book, there now will not be an Abernathy Hall at the University of Alabama.

Abernathy was a great man's friend. If he was not going to write about the movement with coherence, he should simply have written a slender volume that revealed their companionship in depth.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World