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“It was much more difficult functioning in the U.S. than it was in Europe. You know you could run and hide from rockets coming out of Aachen, Germany. But you couldn't run and hide from the kind of verbal abuse you got in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi.“

Walter Patrice, WWII veteran, Poughkeepsie (NY)




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A Breath of Freedom
By Maria Höhn &
Martin Klimke
Palgrave Macmillan October 2010
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Ralph Abernathy

Ralph Abernathy (1926–1990) was a Baptist minister and leader of the civil rights movement. Born in rural Linden, Alabama, in 1926, Dr. Ralph Abernathy attained degrees in sociology and mathematics and later became a professor and dean at Alabama State University. While still in college, he followed his call to ministry, serving at First Baptist Church from 1952, then the largest African-American congregation in Montgomery, Alabama.

Jointly with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., then a fellow pastor in Montgomery, Abernathy organized the famed Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955/56 and commenced his lifelong struggle for civil rights. In 1957, Abernathy cofounded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which was to become one the most prominent organizations in the fight for desegregation.

Following Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, Abernathy assumed the presidency of SCLC, leading the Poor People's Campaign later that year. He resigned his post in 1977, when he unsuccessfully ran for the United States Congress. His autobiography And the Walls Came Tumbling Down was published one year before he passed away in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1990.

Dr. Ralph Abernathy visited Germany several times for his work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the World Peace Council. He stayed in West and East Berlin accompanying Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the fall of 1964 and returned, then the president of the SCLC, to East Berlin from September 27–29, 1971. Together with Reverend Dr. Joseph Lowery of Atlanta and Reverend Dr. Wyatt Walker of Harlem, he received an extensive welcome by representatives of the East German state.

During his two days in the country, Abernathy signed the Golden Book of the city, delivered a lecture at Humboldt University, and gave a sermon at St. Mary’s Church calling for an end to the Vietnam War, the proper distribution of wealth in America, and the release of Angela Davis. Following his sermon, Abernathy was awarded East Germany’s “Medal of Freedom” and was hailed as the representative of “the other America.” He returned several times to East Germany during the 1970s.



Further Reading:

a) General
- Abernathy, Ralph: And the Walls Came Tumbling Down (New York: Harper & Row, 1989).

- Abernathy, Donzaleigh: Partners to History. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph David Abernathy, and the Civil Rights Movement (New York : Crown Publishers, 2003).

b) Related to Germany
- Friedensrat der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik: "Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining ..." Pastor Ralph D. Abernathy, President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Visits the German Democratic Republic, September 27–29, 1971 (Dresden: Peace Council of the German Democratic Republic, 1971).

- Höhn, Maria and Martin Klimke: A Breath of Freedom: The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GIs, and Germany (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), chapter 5, 7.

c) Related Sources in Digital Archive
- Abernathy, Ralph: Sermon in St. Mary’s Church, Transcript, September 28, 1971.