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Abernathy to Speak in V.I. Despite Checkered Past

Feb. 8, 2005 – The featured speaker at several Black History Month events on St. Thomas and St. John has a checkered past, an aspect of his career not mentioned in the biography supplied by the St. John Community Foundation.
The Rev. Ralph David Abernathy III, son of the acclaimed civil rights leader, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy Sr., and a former Georgia state senator, will be on St. Thomas and St. John from Feb. 19 to Feb. 28.
His visit is being organized by the V.I. Night Out Against Crime Committee, with sponsorship by the V.I. National Park, the Law Enforcement Planning Commission, the V.I. Prevention Council, and the John's Folly Learning Institute.
According to 20 pages of reports faxed by Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor, Carol Reeves, Abernathy has twice gone to jail. His most recent term, almost two years for a parole violation, ended in October 2003, and he is currently on probation.
He first served 14 months of a four-year sentence after convictions in December 1999 on 18 counts, including stealing state money, violating his oath as a senator, false swearing, forgery and influencing a witness. The charges stemmed from falsifying legislative expense accounts and forging vouchers for state reimbursements in the amount of $5,700 when he was serving in the Georgia State Senate.
A September 1999 trial on this same case resulted in a hung jury when a juror "refused to even consider the case against Abernathy," the paper reported.
He got out of prison in May 2001, but the paper reported he was back in again by November 2002 for violating a state law that prohibits anyone other than a lawyer from receiving fees to speak on behalf of inmates before the parole board.
Abernathy served three terms in the state Senate until, in 1998, he was barred from seeking re-election because the $400 check he used to pay his qualifying fee bounced.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported brushes with the law going back to 1994 when Abernathy was cited and fined for leading East Point, Ga., police on a high-speed chase through town. He claimed he was late for a speech at an elementary school.
Also in 1994, a female employee at the state Senate building claimed that Abernathy barged into the unmarked bathroom and refused to leave. He later apologized to the woman, but claimed she lied.
Then, in 1997, he was accused by U.S. Customs officials of hiding marijuana in his underwear. According to an Associated Press report, he was returning from a trip to Jamaica, entering the United States through Atlanta's Hartsfield International Air, when he drew the attention of drug-sniffing dogs. Clayton County did not press charges and Abernathy got off with a $500 civil fine and a sanction from his state Senate colleagues.
Several people involved in organizing his visit to St. John said Abernathy has turned over a new leaf.
Carole DeSenne, director of the Community Foundation and a member of the Night Out Against Crime Committee, said, "This is a man who had some problems, but gave his heart to God."
The biography supplied by the Community Foundation claims that Abernathy received his license to preach after a Dec. 26, 1999 trial sermon at the West Hunter Baptist Church in Atlanta, just five days after his conviction. The biography further indicates he is currently an associate pastor at that church.
The Rev. Lewis Jones, pastor at West Hunter Baptist Church, said Tuesday that Abernathy was ordained at the church, the same one where his civil rights leader father preached for 30 years. Jones said that Abernathy was currently not an associate pastor of the church but had been in the past. He was not sure when because he was only on the job two months.
Jones explained that an associate pastor is licensed to preach, but does not hold a staff position.
Park Superintendent Art Frederik first announced Abernathy's visit at St. John's Martin Luther King Day celebration on Jan. 17. He did not return phone calls but had the park's public information officer, Beulah Dalmida-Smith, call back
Dalmida-Smith said that Frederick was aware of Abernathy's past problems. "Who doesn't have a past?" she said. She went on to say that Abernathy's past has nothing to do with what he's doing in the future.
Dalmida-Smith said there were no plans to cancel Abernathy's visit.
Kahlil Osiris, who serves as director at the John's Folly Learning Institute, also did not return a request for comment left on the Learning Institute's answering machine.
In the Community Foundation announcement, Osiris said the purpose of Abernathy's visit is to "give new voice and vision to the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. His journey – from sit-ins to the senate, from prison to the pulpit – connects the past to the present in a way that's deeply personal and refreshingly honest."
The press release does not explain the use of the word "prison." However, the biography does note that Abernathy went to jail when he was nine for marching with the "Mule Train," a civil rights march in Georgia.
A call to the number provided by directory assistance in Atlanta for Abernathy yielded a notice of temporary disconnection.
The Community Foundation biography reports that Abernathy was born in 1959, but the Atlanta Journal-Constitution puts his birth year as 1960.
Abernathy is scheduled to speak at V.I. National Park's annual Folklife Festival at Annaberg Plantation from 10 a.m. to noon on both Feb. 22 and 23.
Additionally, he is expected to speak at the University of the Virgin Islands Sports and Fitness Center at 7 p.m. on Feb. 23, attend a Government House reception on Feb. 24 and open the first meeting of the St. John Dialog on Race Relations from 3 to 5 p.m. on Feb. 26 at Nazareth Lutheran Church on St. John.
On Feb. 27, Abernathy is scheduled to preach a sermon at Nazareth Lutheran Church's 10 a.m. service. He'll wrap up the day with a 4 p.m. speech in Emancipation Garden on St. Thomas.
He is also scheduled to make presentations at public and private schools.

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