Ralph David Abernathy III, a former Georgia state senator and namesake son of a civil rights icon, has died.
Abernathy III was diagnosed with colon cancer five years ago, and revealed that he was hospitalized for several weeks last year after it had spread to his liver.
“I knew then that I couldn’t hide it any longer,” Abernathy III told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in February. “That was right around the time Jimmy Carter announced he had cancer, so that gave me encouragement.”
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said he was saddened to learn of Abernathy’s passing, and that the younger Abernathy carried on his father’s work.
“He was known for his saying: ‘If the elevator to success is broken, take the stairs,’” Reed said in a prepared statement. “His work ethic and his commitment to the ideals of his father meant he could not sit idly by when confronted with injustice, and he worked tirelessly throughout his career to protect children and strengthen families.”
Abernathy III died two days short of his 57th birthday. He had a tainted political career after he was convicted in 1998 on 35 felony charges related to false reimbursement requests to the Legislature. Abernathy, a Democrat, was prosecuted by Democratic Attorney General Thurbert Baker and served about a year of a four-year prison sentence.
In the past year, he was trying to raise $3.5 million to build a “freedom plaza” outside the West Hunter Street Baptist Church, an iconic landmark from the Civil Rights era where his father was pastor.
The church, which is owned by Abernathy, is in a state of disrepair.
Atlanta City Councilman C.T. Martin said Abernathy’s passing is a loss for everyone concerned about human rights. The councilman also said he was concerned about the future of the church and the plaza project.
“He was a long-time advocate for civil rights and human rights in our city,” Martin said. “He will be sadly missed.”
U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson tweeted: “The Abernathy family is legendary in GA and the Civil Rights movement. My prayers are with them at this sad time.”
Abernathy’s vision for the plaza included a 25-foot bronze monument dedicated to his parents, Ralph and Juanita Abernathy, Coretta and Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and John Lewis; and a wall featuring the names of all “freedom fighters” and Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff.
Abernathy’s father, Ralph David Abernathy Sr., was a leader of the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King’s closest friend. In 1957, the elder Abernathy co-founded, and was an executive board member of, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He died in 1990.
Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, was a long-time friend and said he spoke to Abernathy III recently about funding for the Wheat Street church, another civil rights-era house of worship that is part of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic District. Smyre was first elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1974, becoming the youngest member in its history at age 26.
“I’m so saddened,” Smyre said. “He was a public servant to the end. My last encounter with him was on the church project. He came to see me and talk to me and some civil rights leaders about funding.”