The daughter of Juanita Jones Abernathy and the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s closest friend and partner in leading the Civil Rights Movement, Donzaleigh Abernathy has been fighting the good fight for racial equality since she was but a child, delivering her first public speech at the age of 12 at the Children for Survival March in Washington, DC in 1965.
I met Abernathy, who will be at the Pasadena Central Library, 285 E. Walnut St., Pasadena, Saturday, Feb. 29, a few years ago at a Latino- themed event at Cal State, Channel Islands. She had made a point of greeting each individual farm worker and family member who had been bused in to attend before addressing the general crowd who had come to hear her speak.
What I observed that day was a pillar of grace and beauty who showed a genuine interest in everyone to whom she spoke, a quality that does not dissipate in her everyday life and interactions.
As a small child growing up in the Baptist church, devotionals left a lasting impression on her.
“What got to me were these words that they would sing: ‘A charge to keep I have, A God to glorify who gave his son my soul to save, and fit it for the sky; To serve the present age, my calling to fulfill; Oh may it all my powers engage to do my Master’s will.’ It was a hymn by Charles Wesley. This was my inspiration.”
Having chosen Los Angeles as her home, Abernathy is an actress, producer, author and activist; expressing “a moral obligation to pass the stories of the Civil Rights Movement on to the younger generation,” as she has often said, “so that they know who these people were, what they did and what they stood for.”
Abernathy is the author of “Partners to History: Martin Luther King Jr, Ralph David Abernathy, and the Civil Rights Movement,” an exquisite book that requires multiple passes in order to grasp fully. The first time I went through it looking only at the photos, a pictorial essay in itself, before attempting to read the words.
Her great grandfather, George Abernathy, was 12 years old when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
“He taught my dad about Reconstruction; when black people had the right to vote and were allowed to hold public office, before something ugly came to be: Jim Crow and the laws of segregation,” she recalls in the book. “He always used to tell my dad, ‘The bottom rail will come to the top and justice will not always be denied to the colored man.’ So, because of my great grandfather, my father always had that thought present in his mind: ‘We were free before, so we’re going to be free again.’”
Donzaleigh often tells an amusing story about how her father and King met at a Spellman College event in Atlanta. The Rev. King Sr. had recently invited Abernathy and a group of young ministers to hear his son preach at Ebenezer Baptist Church, so when Abernathy saw Rev. King Jr. again at Spellman College, he went over to speak to him, only to find his former date, who had stood him up for a date with Martin, hiding behind a tree. The two men had a good laugh over it and attended the concert together. They would not meet again until several years later. Incidentally, the young woman never heard from either one of them again.
Eventually, together with their respective wives and families, spiritual and political leaders, they would lead the most important movement ever to take place in this country, after the Civil War, to recognize the equality of all people: The Civil Rights Movement.
Fueled by the arrest of Rosa Parks on Dec. 1, 1955, the Civil Rights Movement began with the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, which lasted for 381 days.
The movement attracted people from all walks of life, from across the entire country, to participate in the fight against racism and segregation. Although the message of civil rights leaders was that of nonviolence, the Civil Rights Movement was anything but that; simply because you cannot control how your opposition chooses to operate. Many people, both black and white, lost their lives in the struggle so that all people could benefit from the basic human dignities that African Americans had been denied.
“I had a problem with the original book cover because everybody on the front line was black. But the Civil Rights Movement was everybody coming together to make this movement happen — it was black people and white people, so I thought, ‘I have to change that cover,’” Donzaleigh clarifies for readers. “Fortunately, while I was meeting with Dorothy Ehrhart-Morrison, the author of ‘No Mountain High Enough: Secrets of Successful African American Women,’ her husband, Saul Morrison, wanted to show me a photograph, and that was the photo that would become the actual cover for my book.”
Early life for Donzaleigh was anything but typical. Seven months before she was born, in the early morning hours of Jan. 10, 1957, the Abernathy home in Montgomery, Alabama was bombed, and within hours so too was the First Baptist Church, where her father was the senior pastor.
Donzaleigh acknowledges, “When I was little, life was not ordinary as with other children, but for me it was ordinary because it was my life.”
Donzaleigh credits her father as her motivating factor, and also credits her mother, Juanita, for making her who she is. She maintains an arduous schedule filled with many speaking engagements, among many other things — and even makes time to work the polls on election days. It is very rare when you get to meet someone whom you’ve admired and they actually live up to, or even surpass the expectations that we have previously perceived of them. Donzaleigh Abernathy has been exactly that rarity.
“Ms. Abernathy spoke at the high school where I work last year and what she had to say stuck with many of our kids,” says Altadena resident Erin Seuss, a coordinator and English teacher at Ulysses S Grant High School in Van Nuys, where California Secretary of State Alex Padilla has also visited, “We recently had a student give a speech during Alex Padilla’s visit where he referenced Ms. Abernathy’s talk and his take away from it.”
Donzaleigh Abernathy will be at the Pasadena Public Library to participate in the Black History Festival for the second year in a row.
“We are so delighted to have her back. Donzaleigh Abernathy is an awesome presenter,” says Christine Reeder, senior librarian in charge of programs for the library and special programs such as ArtNight Pasadena and One City, One Story.
Patricia Cunliffe is a filmmaker and artist living in Altadena. She will be part of a three-person art exhibit at Walt Girdner Photo Studio & Gallery, 27 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena, and will be presenting three short art films at the Pasadena Public Library, 285 E. Walnut St., Pasadena, on ArtNight, March 12.