Civil rights leaders

President Lyndon Johnson with (from left) former D.C. Congressman Walter Fauntroy, Jaunita and Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, and Martin Luther King Jr.    (Source: The Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library)

Donzaleigh Abernathy is a civil rights activist, actress and writer. She is also the daughter of Rev. Ralph David and Juanita Abernathy and goddaughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

Growing up in the South

Growing up in the South, in the center of the Civil Rights movement and also as the daughter of one of the most influential Civil Rights leaders in the movement, was difficult for Donzaleigh. Violence, bombings and threats were commonplace. The Abernathy house was even bombed while Juanita was pregnant with Donzaleigh, which caused the baby to shake for the first six months of her life. 

“People observed everything we did,” Donzaleigh said. “It was frightening. Our home had been bombed, and the KKK would call twice a day – morning and night – threatening to kill us.”

When Donzaleigh and her siblings integrated into elementary school after the Selma Montgomery March, children would call Donzaleigh and her sister the `N’ word every day. Some would even try to push them down the stairs as they made their way to classes.

Donzaleigh said her dad told his children to “love them anyway.”

She knew with full understanding the sacrifice her family was making. 

“We would go to bed every night and pray that we would make it through to the next morning,” she said. “We knew and understood that what they were doing was important. And we knew what was expected of us and the role we were to play.”

Abernathy was King’s closest friend and mentor. Donzaleigh said that friendship taught her the art of being selfless.

“They were givers, selfless and so loving. They knew that two heads were always better than one. Daddy and Uncle Martin were best friends,” she said. 

King and Abernathy were jailed 17 times together and Abernathy was jailed 27 more times in continuing the fight after King’s death. Seeing them believe in something that required such heavy, personal sacrifice made a huge impact on Donzaleigh.

“I wanted to be in jail with them,” she said. “I wanted to be in service. If my life was to be taken, I wanted it to be taken serving humanity.”

She recalled the wonderful things that also came from their actions, such as moving from “colored” water fountains and “colored” bathrooms, experiencing school integration, and of course, freedom.

“I was so proud because I would see them on the news and I knew what they were doing was important,” she said. “I saw people of all races coming together and it was incredibly powerful. I can’t really articulate the way it was, but the feeling it gave me was an incredible sense of pride and I loved it.

“I never saw my dad without Uncle Martin. But there was a balance there.”

Finding comfort in chaos 

“The thing that helps me the most is actually going to crisis situations,” she said. “Because I know that when I’m in the midst of a crisis, a calm comes over me that I learned from my dad and Uncle Martin.”

During the Los Angeles riots in 1992, Donzaleigh lived on the Westside but immediately made her way to the smoke and fires in South Central LA. It was a desire to serve others that pulled her into the chaos. 

“When I got there, a calm came over me. I knew what to do to help people,” she said.

She began picking up trash, sweeping the streets, even getting on the assembly line at a local church to help distribute bags of food. She also visited the housing projects affected by the riots. 

“People told me not to go because I was a black woman and I could be killed. I told them, ‘The people are hungry, grocery stores are destroyed. I’m going.’ It’s better to live a life in service than to live a life in fear,” she said. “For me, that helps. I make it work. I have to be socially minded and give back.”

Donzaleigh has dedicated years of her life to serving underprivileged children and teenagers, going to juvenile detention centers around the country. She believes that there is never a broken child, only a broken system around that child.

“I hate that children are incarcerated. I make it my point to speak to every single one of them when I visit,” she said. “I want to connect with them, to let them know, ‘I hear you, I see you, I love you and you are not at fault.’ I serve children because I understand what they are going through. I’ve been there.”

Donzaleigh shifts to talking about how that same love drove her father and Dr. King. 

“The important thing I want people to understand is that Uncle Martin and Daddy loved America. They traveled this country on peace missions,” she said. “My dad fought in World War II, and he acknowledged what didn’t work. But this is our home. This is our country. We built this country!

“I just have to remind others that it’s all about the love. Love will always endure. It never dies. It’s the only thing that will bring us together. Truth crushed to earth shall rise again. I don’t know how much time I have left, but I have a moral obligation to share the history – and this story. To whom much is given, much is expected.”

Living a legacy of love

Donzaleigh believes that love is the beauty of the Civil Rights movement, facilitating change around the world.

“Desmond Tutu said that after watching what we did in America, it let him know they could do it in Africa. And I remember crying as the Berlin Wall came down because they joined hands together and sang, ‘We shall overcome’ – the very same words we sang during the Civil Rights movement,” Donzaleigh said. 

Her father, she said, never took time to rest. Less than a month after King’s death, in May 1968, he led the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C.; and in 1973, he helped negotiate a peace settlement at the Wounded Knee uprising between the FBI and the leaders of the American Indian Movement. 

“The Poor People’s Campaign, the food stamp program – not many people know that we have food stamps in America today because of my father,” Donzaleigh said. “He also made the proclamation to make King’s birthday a national holiday.

“We have to be the voice of the voiceless. When we do listen, we hear. And when we hear, we validate those who are suffering. We give them hope and lift them up. This is our home and we all need to learn how to live together in peace – to love each other. We’re all in this together, and that’s why it’s so important we must learn to listen to one another.”

If Donzaleigh’s voice could reach the ears of every single American today, she said she would share with them a quote from her father:

“We hate each other because we fear each other, we fear each other because we don’t know each other, we don’t know each other because we won’t sit down at the table together. Let us sit down at the table together. Let us find the love.”