[Author’s note: After this piece ran on page one of the Trentonian, Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King’s dubious successor, called editor Gil Spencer to say he would never return to Trenton until I was fired. Spencer supported me with a long editorial. It wasn’t the first time he had to do that.]
The last time Ralph Abernathy was in Trenton, the bearer of Martin Luther King’s torch said last night, it was a hamlet. Now, he said, it is strong a sprawling metropolis.
It was a long ride in from Philadelphia, and it was very dark and stormy. Ralph Abernathy was very late. Obviously, he had not been spending the time touring Trenton.
The place Ralph Abernathy called a bustling metropolis sent him away with a big $319 and a whole lot of loose change. It came to about a buck a head. And although the passing of the plate didn’t bring in very much money at the War Memorial Building last night, it did prove a point of sorts. Critics of Ralph Abernathy have, for a long time, called him a two-bit country preacher. Not so.
Last night Ralph Abernathy came to the “big city” and pulled in eight bits a head.
He walked into the first big local SCLC meeting to the music •of cheers and shouts. The chorus was singing “Oh, Happy Day.” Local SCLC President Edith Savage was yelling “Abernathy is the leader” over and over again. It was a real revival.
Abernathy is a short man. He doesn’t have the physical presence of Martin Luther King. He doesn’t have — you should pardon the expression — the charisma.
He is no longer the champion of the dungaree jacket — the symbol of the poor people’s march, the cloth of Resurrection City.
He was dressed in a natty green suit and a blue shirt and a nice silk tie. His companions were dressed well too. One of them — the one
who was not wearing the tie — had on a purple suede jacket. Things seemed to be looking up. Somehow, the poor people’s campaign doesn’t seem so poor anymore.
Ralph Abernathy went into what he calls his “Baptist swing.” It is a pounding, driving message that speaks of the Lord, that makes people in the audience shout out “amen,” that makes him sound like a black Billy Graham.
Most of all, it is the device that brings in the bread. It is a device that gets the people in the audience jump ing to their feet and reaching in their hip pockets and pulling out the folding stuff.
The thing that Ralph Abernathy learned in all those years with Martin Luther King was how to wake them and shake them.
“I ask you who are sitting around as part of Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” to get up off you knees and to go out into the streets and to tell Pharohto ‘Let my people go.’
Ralph Abernathy got them off their knees alright. He got them off their knees, .and he stood them on their heads, and he shook them until the change fell out. He started with the tens, and he got down to the fives, and then he settled for the ones.
“It doesn’t look like he’s going to pull in a fortune tonight, “one of the white-jacketed ushers said.
“Well,” said another, “he’s no Martin Luther King.”
“Sure,” said the first man, “but in this town, even King himself might not fill the plate.”
The sprawling metropolis of Trenton that Ralph Abernathy had come to revive had suddenly gone back to being the hamlet it always was.
He finished speaking, and they sang, “We Shall Overcome,” and everybody walked outside. It had stopped raining, and the clouds had lifted, and in the still of the night you could see things a lot clearer. You could see the light.