The Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, the best friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose reputation as a pathbreaking civil rights leader was injured amid the furor over his autobiographical account of King's adultery, died Tuesday. He was 64.
Abernathy had been undergoing treatment at Crawford Long hospital here since March 23 for a low sodium condition. He had been treated for stroke in the past. Cardiologist Dr. Henry A. Liberman said that Abernathy suffered cardiac arrest while undergoing a lung scan. He died shortly after noon.
Abernathy had been pastor of the West Hunter Street Baptist Church for the last 28 years, and was president emeritus of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
During his long, close relationship with King, Abernathy became known as his alter ego. The two were called "the Movement's Twins." Through the tumultuous civil rights era, during which Abernathy's home and church were both bombed, the two marched together, ate together, organized together, went to jail together.
He and King, who was murdered in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968, together founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Before that, Abernathy helped organize the Montgomery bus boycott, which catalyzed the nonviolent civil rights movement.
"I've always felt that he was the unsung hero of the modern civil rights movement," said Georgia state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, a friend and political ally. "He never received the credit, the appreciation that he deserved."
Abernathy himself expressed similar feelings during an interview last October. "I have been left out for a long time," he said in his deep, slow drawl. "In so many instances there has been an attempt to rewrite history. And many times on photographs, Martin and I were marching together, hand in hand, they cropped the photographs and left me out."
By 1980, when he declared his support of Ronald Reagan for President, he was firmly out of the civil rights mainstream. Abernathy supported Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, but the publication last year of his autobiography, "And the Walls Came Tumbling Down," triggered a deafening outcry from black activists nationwide.
In the book, Abernathy devoted a few pages to accounts of King's extramarital affairs, including details of King's sexual exploits on the night of April 3, 1968, the night before he was murdered. Abernathy wrote that King spent part of the night with two women and that, during an argument with a third woman who was jealous, "knocked her across the bed."
In the interview, Abernathy said he wrote the details to "set the record straight" and to show that heroes are mortals and that mortals from any station in life can become heroes.
Some civil rights leaders signed a statement suggesting that Abernathy's strokes had affected his mind. Abernathy apparently died without making peace with his former friends, and there was speculation around Atlanta that the book furor contributed to his death.
Tuesday, however, many of Abernathy's allies-turned-critics paid respect to his memory.
One, Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the NAACP, said he knows "first-hand of the sacrifices (Abernathy) made for the civil rights movement, and that should never be forgotten." Hooks said he was "saddened by his passing and will always value the many contributions he made to the cause of equality and justice."
Another, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), praised Abernathy as one "who showed tremendous courage in standing up to the brutal system of segregation and racial degradation that had existed in the South. He was a fighter."
King's son, Martin Luther King III, a Fulton County, Ga., commissioner, called Abernathy's death "certainly a very tragic loss to our nation."
During the height of the attacks against him, Abernathy said in the interview: "Well, I may be completely ostracized by these people, but I will rise again. I'm going to be all right because thousands and thousands and millions of people across this nation love me and appreciate the fact that I carried on Martin Luther King's dreams."
Charles Evers, longtime Mississippi civil rights activist and brother of murdered activist Medgar Evers, speculated on how history would treat Abernathy's memory. "If they look on the positive side," he said, "it will be great. But if they look at the one negative thing, his book about Martin, then I guess he'll be like all other great men--soon forgotten."
Abernathy, who was born in Linden, Ala., is survived by his wife, Juanita; sons, Ralph David III and Kwame Luthuli, and daughters, Juandalynn Ralpheda Abernathy and Donzaleigh Avis Abernathy.
Researcher Edith Stanley contributed to this story.