Civil rights leader Juanita Abernathy, whose influential role in the civil rights movement helped reshape America’s cultural and political landscape, has died.
She was 87.
Abernathy died Thursday surrounded by family at a hospital in Atlanta, family spokesman James Peterson said. In a statement, her family described her as the “last remaining person who was actively involved from day one of the Montgomery bus boycott and the civil rights movement.”
The 1955 bus boycott was a protest against racial segregation on the public transit system in Montgomery, Alabama. She came up with a business plan for the boycott, which later became the model for the American civil rights movement, her family said.
She was married to Ralph Abernathy, a close friend of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a co-founder of the civil rights movement. During the 13-month bus boycott, the Abernathys’ home in Montgomery was used as a meeting spot by King and other civil rights leaders. Her family became friends with King and his wife, Coretta Scott, and the men shared jail cells in their many arrests during the movement.
Abernathy’s work in the civil rights movement was not without risks. In January 1957, she survived a bombing of her home by white supremacists while she was pregnant and alone with her toddler daughter, her family said. At the time, her husband and King had traveled to Atlanta to set up the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Her family moved from Montgomery to Atlanta five years later.
“Despite continued daily death threats against her family, she attended major mass meetings, taught voter education classes, hosted and housed Freedom Riders, and marched on Washington in 1963,” her family said in a statement. “She fought for the mass integration of southern public school systems and lobbied for African-Americans and other people of color to have the right to attend the Metropolitan Opera in the South.”
To help fight school segregation, Abernathy enrolled her children in independent white schools.
She is survived by her three children and four grandchildren. Her husband died in 1990.