ATLANTA, Ga. (CBS46) -- Civil Rights icon Juanita Abernathy passed away at the age of 89 on Thursday, according to a close family friend.
Abernathy, who was also the widow of Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, is revered as a "foot soldier" in the fight for Civil Rights. Along with her late husband and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., she led the infamous Montgomery Boycott, pounded the pavement on the front lines from Montgomery to Selma in 1965, and was a force to be reckoned with during the fight to desegregate schools.
No fight was too big, or too small for that matter.
"She remained fearless in the face of relentless death threats meant to stop her and her husband's activism," reads the recollection of Abernathy on the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame.
Bruce LeVell, a longtime family friend and Atlanta businessman, remembered Abernathy as someone who always defended him.
"I was one of a few Republicans on the [MARTA] board. She would always say, 'You leave LeVell alone! Don't you know we need voices on both sides of the table," said LeVell. "I'm very grateful and humbled that her fight and struggle allowed me to open up a beautiful business in Atlanta and to flourish based on the sweat, blood and tears of her courage."
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp tweeted Thursday evening of the loss, saying, "Juanita Abernathy leaves behind countless loved ones, friends, and a legacy of fearless leadership through her work in our nation's Civil Rights Movement. It is truly impossible to measure her positive impact on our society. The Kemps send our thoughts and prayers to her family."
Members of the Atlanta City Council also released statements:
"I know that the City joins me in extending our most heartfelt condolences to the family of Mrs. Juanita Abernathy. We are deeply saddened by the news of her passing. In hand with her husband the late Reverend Ralph David Abernathy, she played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement and leaves a special legacy. Her pursuit for equality will never be ignored and we will forever honor her by remembering her commitment and service to humanity." - Council President Felicia A. Moore.
“I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing of civil rights icon, women’s advocate, and servant leader, Mrs. Juanita Jones Abernathy. Her contributions to this nation, city and her overwhelming spirit with her husband, Reverend Ralph David Abernathy, during the Civil Rights Movement were legendary. Without the sacrifices of Mrs. Abernathy and those countless others who shouldered the burden of civil rights for all, my service as a Council member today would not have been possible. As the nation mourns her death, I add my voice to the chorus of Americans who collectively say, thank you, Juanita Abernathy. I offer my deepest condolences and prayers to my dear friends in the Abernathy family and to the many lives she impacted in the city and all over the world. Her beautiful elegance and gracious presence will be sorely missed. She left an indelible impression on my life. Good night sweet princess, may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” – Post 1 At-Large Council member Michael Julian Bond
“Juanita Abernathy was a woman of profound strength and courage. As the wife of Ralph David Abernathy, she was a fearless advocate for the Civil Rights Movement and all that it represented. Unmoved by the relentless death threats, even surviving the bombing of their home, Juanita Jones kept fighting. She believed in a better tomorrow and spent her life fighting on behalf of her fervent beliefs. She will be deeply missed.” – District 1 Council member Carla Smith
“Mrs. Abernathy’s influence on this city and the entire world will not only be remembered for her role alongside her husband, the late Reverend Ralph David Abernathy, but for the lives she touched. Through her fight against inequality and advocacy for justice, she leaves an incredible legacy. She will be missed, and her presence will forever be felt. I would like to send my deepest condolences to the entire Abernathy family and everyone that loved her.” – District 3 Council member Antonio Brown.
“I am absolutely heartbroken over the loss of our beloved Juanita Abernathy. As a child of the Civil Rights Movement, I grew up in the Abernathy home. She and my mother were best friends for 50 years. I was privileged to have a front row seat to my Aunt Juanita’s bold approach to change. She was a strategic thinker who led with elegance and grace. She was a fierce warrior for peace and justice. She was proud and unafraid to stand on the front lines so that generations could experience freedom and have a chance at equality. My sincerest condolences to her children and the Abernathy family.” – District 10 Council member Andrea Boone.
“It is with deep sadness that I learned this afternoon of the passing of Mrs. Juanita Jones Abernathy. Mrs. Abernathy was not only a long-time resident of District 9’s Historic Collier Heights neighborhood, but an internationally-known and well-respected leader in the Civil Rights Movement. Along with her husband the late Reverend Ralph David Abernathy, Mrs. Abernathy relentlessly fought for justice and equality. We are all deeply grateful for the many years of Mrs. Abernathy's tireless work to better our nation and our City, where she served on the MARTA Board of Directors for 16-plus years, pushing for transit equity. My thoughts and prayers are with the Abernathy family, and may Mrs. Abernathy be remembered for her life full of service and advocacy.” – District 9 Council member Dustin Hillis.
“While many are chosen to lead a selfless life in service to others, Juanita Abernathy embraced her purpose to the Civil Rights Movement, the city of Atlanta and this country. We are infinitely better because of her contributions. Her life-long commitment to equality and justice is a legacy that should be the cornerstone for all who desire to serve. I extend my heartfelt thoughts and prayers to the Abernathy family.” – District 11 Council member Marci Collier Overstreet.
“I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Mrs. Juanita Abernathy. We will always remember the personal sacrifices and contributions she made alongside her husband Ralph David Abernathy. She was an advocate for the advancement of civil rights which helped cement her legacy as a pioneer for justice for all. I extend my profound condolences to the family and friends of this wonderful woman and national treasure.” – District 12 Council member Joyce Sheperd.
Rep. John Lewis remembered her as someone who worked tirelessly towards goals that were bigger than herself, advocated for simple justice, and was committed to the public good.
"Her life is a testament to the towering role that women played in the Civil Rights Movement," said Rep. John Lewis. "She endured the terrorism of harassing telephone calls to her home, threats on her life and her husband's life, the doubts of naysayers who feared the movement would fail, the sleepless nights of worry and suffered the slings and arrows of hate that were a part of non-violent change in this country," added Lewis.
The Lowery Family, who was also a prominent fixture during the Civil Rights Movement issued the following statement:
“We would like to extend our deepest sympathy to the family of Mrs. Juanita Abernathy, a true foot soldier in the Civil Rights Movement. Mrs. Abernathy was a brave, strategic and effective leader working beside her late husband, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and after his untimely death. Mrs. Abernathy was among the few sisters in the movement who gave voice to the many women working in the background to keep the Movement moving. Her legacy of activism and contributions to the Movement are a significant part of American history. Mrs. Abernathy’s powerful voice will be missed.”
Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said, "The City of Atlanta mourns the passing of Juanita Abernathy, a founding champion and architect of the Civil Rights Movement. Along with her husband, Ralph David Abernathy, Sr, and their close friends Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, Juanita Abernathy participated in the kitchen-table strategy sessions that led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and inspired the march toward freedom and equal rights for African-Americans. For her fearless activism, she endured the wrath of white-supremacist threats and bombings. As a mother, teacher and Atlanta community icon, Mrs. Abernathy will be remembered as a role model whose life example forever serves as a beacon of love, commitment and justice."
Ralph David Abernathy passed at the age of 64 on April 17, 1990. He, alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were integral in forming the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957. Both husband and wife served the organization from 1968 to 1977. On Friday, the SCLC issued the following statement:
“We extend our condolences to the family of Ms. Abernathy. She was a close friend and part of the family in the Civil Rights Movement, as a leader of the SCLC. My most memorable occasion with her in the movement and after she took a leadership role in the organization was right after Illinois Senator Barack Obama won the presidential race. We had an inaugural civil rights conference in Washington, D.C. to bring about the appreciation and commemoration of the civil rights movement and the conveyance of what was taking place. I contacted Ms. Abernathy to serve as our keynote speaker and she sat the house on fire in terms of her delivery. She was an outstanding lecturer and speaker. She will forever be remembered because of her movement experiences, not only from the Montgomery Boycott, but throughout the world. She was from Uniontown, Alabama, in Perry County, nearby to my home in Tuscaloosa. I can relate to the experiences and sacrifices that she, Dr. Abernathy, family members and others in the movement endured, such as the burning of their home and many other life- threatening moments. We appreciate all she has done. She will be always be remembered and be a part of the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, because had it not been for her and others in terms of her capacity as First Lady in comparison with First Lady Coretta Scott King, who was the wife of Dr. King. They were crucial in the development of the relationship between Dr. King and Dr. Abernathy. That was a bond that allowed the movement to continue. It’s a tough job, but in order to have added value to one’s life, you must make sacrifices along the way. I commend the legacy and the history of what she laid forth for others to live. As president and CEO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we are touched more than anything. We are motivated to embark upon the highest level of the movement because of her life.”
Juanita leaves behind children, Juandalynn, Kwame, and Donzaleigh.