A Tribute to Ralph David Abernathy and Martin Luther King Jr.

By Michael Duane Johnson

Seven months ago, George Capsis, Publisher of the WestView News, in the Village of Manhattan, offered me an opportunity to write a piece for his paper about myself. I could not find the words or spirit until now to do so. I have no idea who I really am. For the past three years, I was living in either a Hospital or Nursing Home. At age 56 I was diagnosed with stage three cancer, and because I am a survivor of AIDS, I had no immune system of any significance or value. I was critically ill and Doctors gave little hope I would live. Cancer and AIDS were always seen as an automatic death sentence! 

I had a conversation with one of my doctors, which ironically involved me disclosing my Professional background. For two decades, I concurrently worked at the highest levels of the Black American experience: the Black church, The Black press and the Black school. I was Nationally recognized as an accomplished classical organist. I played at the memorial service for Astronaut Ronald McNair. At age 30 as the Director of Music, Chapel Organist and University Organist for Howard University in Washington D. D., I assisted in the State Funeral services at the National Cathedral for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood marshal, Ron Brown, Secretary of commerce, and other Nationally celebrated African American icon’s. 

One of the most remarkable moments for me was when I was 26 years and old Reverend Ralph David Abernathy hired me as his church organist, and assistant Minister of Music at the West Hunter Street Baptist Church in Atlanta Georgia. I was appointed to the faculty of Morehouse College, and I also at this time lost a brother to a car accident on my mother’s birthday. Because of the Abernathy family and Coretta Scott King and Yolanda King, I was able to go through this period with the support and comfort of a remarkable community that embraced me as Family. It was an exclusive interview with Yolanda King that helped land me a job at the Washington Times Newspaper that published that story. This moment at age 30 propelled me into the National media and rest is now part of history.

I was intimately close to Rev. Abernathy when he wrote his famous autobiography: And The Walls Came Tumbling Down! Often Abernathy, while hanging out together, would randomly share stories about his best friend, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Abernathy enjoyed and was comforted through our relationship in that he could share from his heart stuff he could not write or speak in public. At the time of Dr. King’s death, he had a 70 percent disapproval rating. King was ostracized even by the NAACP because of his position concerning the war in Vietnam. King throughout his life went out of his way to let the world know Ralph Abernathy was his best friend. The stories Abernathy shared about Dr. King were not stories the general public ever heard. These stories revealed a more human aspect to a seemingly sanitized version of history of a man very few people ever got to know personally. Martin was extremely private and protective of his family and did not get close to many people. 

Abernathy himself was ostracized in the last years of his life. I have been angry all of these years because I have failed to step up and set the record straight. I, until now have not been able to share with the world my experience and knowledge concerning questions about Abernathy and Dr. King because I was afraid I was simply not important. I am currently writing my Autobiography to make sure History has a record of information that future generations can benefit from.

In Abernathy’s Autobiography, he revisited the issue of King’s infidelity. Many saw this as unnecessary and were offended by Abernathy’s decision. I asked Abernathy why. His response was, “I did it for people like you. Martin was human. He had issues like anyone else and yet he rose to be a great leader. If you are waiting to wear a cross around your neck and look perfect, we will lose out on having great leaders!” Now at age 60 I am going to rise up and be that leader Dr. King and Abernathy inspired me to be. When one removes the public image of these two great men, the extraordinary character of their existence is revealed. Abernathy revealed that King would be livid if he saw now in history all of the memorial tributes in his name. Abernathy and King wanted the world to know and remember the individuals on the front lines rather then themselves in front of that courageous body of people. The sacrifices that entertainers, and clergy and others made is the real story about the Civil Rights Movement.

I always have known in my heart I have been prepared for this moment. On May 5th, I will be performing a free concert at The Church of Village United Methodist church at 4 pm as a Tribute to these two great men. From now on end, they will be remembered in the same breath that they shared whether in the spotlight or jail. Their focus was on those of us who are forgotten and ignored.

On Tuesdays this May will mark the one-year anniversary of my commitment of volunteering to perform for the community that comes together at the Church of the Village United Methodist Church, pastored by Rev. Jeff Wells in Manhattan. The Ministry is Called Helping Neighbors in Need, and it is an expansive Ministry that provides pantry and referrals to access social benefits to aid the poor and homeless. Like the WestView Newspaper that sponsors concerts in the community, our collective body of institutions are doing their part working with little financial assistance. 

We together can do our part. Who I now am is represented in where I am in this season of my career. This concert is free, and all that is expected is a freewill donation to the Helping Neighbors in Need program. This program on Tuesdays converts its sanctuary into a food pantry and feeds hundreds of people each week. On Saturdays, the church feeds anywhere to up 500 people a free dinner catered by chefs from around the city. This occasion marks the 50th anniversary of my music career, and 35 years in the media. I hope to remember what is great about America, that we help and support each other. Please come out and enjoy. I will be performing and celebrating the music of the Civil Rights Movement with a tribute to Aretha Franklin whom I happened to have worked with. She was one of those who sacrificed her career to join the movement. I will, at that time, share stories about myself never before known to anyone. I cannot wait to play for the audience that hears me on Tuesdays. They have never heard me on the pipe organ, which according to some, I have mastered.

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