Vikings safety Micah Abernathy first realized the significance of his surname as a kindergarten student growing up in Atlanta, Georgia.
On a February school day and in honor of Black History Month, students were taught about African-American historical figures who had played a significant role in the American Civil Rights Movement that occurred in the 1950s and 60s. The class created drawings of the historical figures.
To Micah’s surprise, one of his classmates drew his grandfather: Ralph David Abernathy, Sr.
“I thought that was really cool,” recalled Micah, whom the Vikings signed last week as an undrafted free agent. “It kind of gave me perspective at a young age of the knowledge other people have and how my grandfather really impacted the world.”
He certainly did.
A civil rights activist, Abernathy was a mentor and close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Look up a historical photo of King, and you’ll likely find Abernathy nearby. The two were inseparable. At the beginning of his now-famous “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech, given the day before his assassination, King called Abernathy “the best friend that I have in the world.”
The friends collaborated together to create the Montgomery Improvement Association, which led to the Montgomery bus boycott. In May of 1961, they set up an event in support of the Freedom Riders, who were attacked by a white mob amidst protesting still-segregated buses across the South. Abernathy and King – along with their families – led the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965.
A photo in the New York City Daily News shows Abernathy and King walking their children home from the previously all-white Spring Street School on Aug. 30, 1965, the first day of a massive integration of public schools in the South.
Abernathy and King were jailed together on 17 different occasions for their work in the Civil Rights Movement. And when King was mortally wounded at the Lorraine Motel, while standing on the balcony outside the room the two shared, Abernathy cradled his friend in his arms while waiting for emergency personnel to arrive.
“They did everything together. They roomed together on trips, they dressed alike, they [picked up] each other’s habits,” Micah said. “They went to jail together every time. It just shows you what a true friend is – somebody that you need in your life that’s going to be with you regardless [of the circumstances]. Somebody that’s always going to support you – you need those people in your life.”
Abernathy passed away on April 17, 1990, seven years before Micah was born. And while he’s never met his grandfather, Micah will tell you that he is his hero.
Micah reflected on growing up near his Grandmother Juanita’s house and the way she told stories not only of her late husband but of many others who played a part in the Civil Rights Movement.
“She has pictures covering all four living room walls of history, basically,” Micah said. “Me and my siblings would just go up to them and ask, ‘Who is this?’
“My grandma would explain who they were, and then she’d go into a very long dissertation about how they were related to the Movement,” he added with a smile. “My grandma, she made a great impact on my life and on my siblings. She told us where we came from and what our history is.”
Of the aforementioned stories and historical events Micah has heard, one particularly strikes his heart.
On Jan. 10, 1957, in response to the bus boycott, Abernathy’s home was bombed while he, King and 58 other black leaders were meeting at the Southern Negro Leaders Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration.
Juanita, pregnant at the time with the couple’s second daughter, was at home with their firstborn, Juandalynn. They fortunately were unharmed.
“If the bomb had been placed two inches closer to the house, my grandmother would not be alive,” said Micah, whose father was the third of five children. “The baby would have died, the [unborn] baby would have died, and it’s just by the grace of God that it wasn’t placed any closer.
“That just shows you that God works in mysterious ways, but He works for a purpose,” Micah added.
Abernathy, a Christian minister, believed the same. The way he lived his life and worked peacefully for unity and equal rights has been passed down to Micah, whose voice and demeanor reflect love rather than bitterness.
Even stories of hateful acts such as the bombing “put things into perspective” for him.
“A lot of people resorted to violence in those times. That was the first instinct, but it tells me that you have to think before you act. There’s a better way to do things than you might initially [consider],” Micah said. “It’s just about checking yourself before you move forward.”
From the kindergarten classroom to high school lessons and college lecture halls, Micah, who remains close to the King family, is accustomed to hearing his grandfather’s name surface amid talks of the Civil Rights Movement.
His peers occasionally are aware of Micah’s deeply personal connection to the topic. Other times, he allows himself to become a quiet observer of the conversation.
“If I’m in a big audience, I won’t say anything,” Micah explained. “I just want to hear other people’s thoughts, because you have to have an open mind about things. It’s really interesting. Especially being from the South where I’m from, you [encounter] a lot of different perspectives. Some you’re gonna agree with, some you might not like, but that’s life. That’s how the world works. You have to accept that. Sometimes I hear things that I’ve never thought of before, so it gives me another perspective on life.
“But being the grandson of Ralph David Abernathy, Sr., it’s interesting hearing his name come up, seeing his name in textbooks,” Micah continued. “It’s still shocking to me to this day, honestly. But I’m very proud, and so is my family.”
Micah hopes to carry on his grandfather’s legacy and honorably represent the Abernathy name, which now is embroidered on the back of a Vikings jersey.
The former Tennessee Volunteers standout described the moment he received the phone call following the NFL Draft.
“I was just thankful,” Micah said. “Obviously every player wants to be drafted, every player wants to be in the top rounds, but as time started ticking down and the Vikings called, it was more so a relief. I was sitting in the room with my mom and my sister, and it was just a relief. I’m just happy to be here and thankful for the opportunity.”
Excitement would have surrounded any team that extended the opportunity to Micah, but since arriving in Minnesota, he feels the Vikings are the right fit for him.
“They want good people, and that’s the type of program I want to be around,” he said. “They want good football players, but off the field they want good men – and that means a lot to me.”
Walking off the practice field during rookie minicamp, Abernathy lightly swung the horned purple helmet in his hand. Making the 90-man roster was step one; he now plans to “be a sponge” and work hard for a chance at sticking around for the regular season.
It’s fair to say that Micah is living his dream.
But it’s the shared dream of Dr. King and his grandfather that most influences who he is beneath the Vikings practice jersey. From his time in the SEC to the chance he has now in the pros, Micah plans to use his platform to honor the Abernathy name.
“Coming out of high school, I didn’t necessarily realize how big of a platform I had. But when I got to college and the media [attention] expanded,” Micah said. “I was able to write the piece for the Players’ Tribune in 2016, and that was a big part of my life that I take a lot of pride in.
“I got more of an understanding and respect for how much I can affect people and how much reach I have to others,” Micah said. “And me being a football player, I have reached and [earned] respect from the younger generation. I’ve always known who my family was and how it affected people, but playing football kind of put a different perspective on it. And then me being an Abernathy, that doubles it.”