Civil rights icon Juanita Jones Abernathy participated in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March on Washington and many other protests during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, but when she addressed Rowan students and faculty on Feb. 27, she said that despite all she has done, the fight for equality is still far from over.
Abernathy gave the keynote address at the ninth annual Rosa Parks Luncheon where she discussed the work she did with her husband Rev. Dr. Ralph David Abernathy and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in hopes of inspiring both students and faculty to continue a fight for justice.
“I’m the last person living out of the group who started off in Montgomery, AL. in 1955,” Abernathy said. “And I’m just proud to have the ability to stand here today and say to you, we’re not finished. This country is not free. Racism is alive and doing very well all over America.”
Abernathy said that it was the “yearning among young people” that the Civil Rights Movement was built upon, and even though the role of young women has not been discussed, it was the backbone of the entire movement.
“We were the foot soldiers,” Abernathy said. “Had not it been for women, there would not have been a civil rights movement.”
While her husband and King made most of the headlines, Abernathy stood alongside them throughout the Civil Rights Movement. She told the crowded Eynon Ballroom stories of how the bus boycott started and how they took their movement up north.
“Martin Luther King did not start the Montgomery Bus Boycott,” Abernathy said. “We had not chosen a leader. It was spontaneous combustion. We decided we were not going to take the ill treatments anymore.”
After boycotting the buses in Montgomery for 381 days, Abernathy and the others organizing the boycott knew they needed to expand across the United States if they were going to make a change. What started in Alabama became a national movement.
“Alabama saved America from herself,” Abernathy said.
Abernathy and her husband lived in the west side of Chicago for two weeks to draw attention to the slums that many blacks were forced to live in. When they finally organized a march through Chicago to protest, they were faced with just as much hostility as they faced in the south.
“As we marched, white men were lined up on the trunks of their cars with their rifles pointed at us,” Abernathy said. “Never before in all of my days in the movement had we experienced that, and the police didn’t open their mouths, but we kept on marching.”
Despite there never being any violence from the black community, Abernathy was still threatened 24/7 by people calling her house and threatening to kill her and her family.
“For five years, we lived under death threats, somebody calling you everything except your name,” Abernathy said.
For Abernathy herself, the decision to keep fighting despite the constant death threats was easy. Progress, even though it was slow, was being made because people were taking a stand.
“If not us, who?” Abernathy said. “If not then, when?”
She repeated this line over again, the second time directing it to the students in attendance to stress how monumental the power of speaking out can be and how far we still have to go to achieve full equality in America.
“A young woman said to me, ‘Ms. Abernathy, it’s time for you all to do something.’ I said, ‘Baby, our day is over. You have to do something. It’s your time,’” Abernathy said.
She stressed the importance of young people getting involved, and how they now bear the responsibility to make America a better place.
“You have the ability to change this country,” Abernathy said. “We opened the doors but the ball is now in your court.”
Vice President of Student Life and Dean of Students Richard Jones said that Abernathy’s speech gave “life to information that students have read about.”
“Students have to understand contextual history of the Civil Rights Movement in America’s past and present so they can apply it to their future,” Jones said.
Onna Payne, a freshman law and justice major, came to hear Abernathy speak to find out more about the different aspects of the Civil Rights Movement.
“It’s good especially to look at African Americans’ past and all the struggles they’ve been through,” Payne said.
For both Jones and Abernathy, educating students about the past is the key to a better future. Abernathy believes that if children are not taught about slavery, either in school or by their parents, then they are not doing justice to those who suffered for the freedom we have today.
Abernathy’s hope is that once students understand where they came from, they can work together toward a future where people are not judged by the color of their skin.
“Wherever you are from, you have a responsibility to make it a better place,” Abernathy said.
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