Respect Diversity + Inclusion

Donzaleigh Abernathy discusses growing up the goddaughter of MLK Jr, the future of the civil rights movement

Story at a glance

  • Donzaleigh Abernathy grew up the youngest daughter of civil rights activist Ralph Abernathy and was exposed to both racism and the fight for racial equality from an early age.
  • Abernathy dedicated much of her life to racial activism and teaching young students about the civil rights movement, including youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman.
  • She is now the vocal soloist in a project inspired by her godfather, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the speech he gave about the Vietnam War.

The daughter of legendary civil rights activist Ralph David Abernathy and goddaughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., Donzaleigh Abernathy has lived the kind of life that reads like a movie script — which makes sense, considering she’s actually spent time in front of the screen, as well, as an actor in the television show “The Walking Dead.” An accomplished author, her literary work “Partners To History, Martin Luther King, Ralph David Abernathy and the Civil Rights Movement” was once nominated as one of the Best Books for Young Adults by the American Library Association.

Now, Abernathy has added yet another notch to her professional belt as the soloist in a newly released social justice choral project called “The Listening.” Written by composer Cheryl B. Engelhardt, the project was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break Silence,” which he gave exactly one year before his death. 

We recently sat down to chat with her about what it was like growing up in the middle of the civil rights movement, her latest project and her thoughts on the latest generation of revolutionaries. 

Let’s start at the beginning. I’d love to just hear a little bit about what it was like for you growing up as the goddaughter of such a cultural icon — what were your most poignant memories? 

Well, I’m the youngest daughter of Ralph Abernathy, and my sister always stressed to me that [Martin Luther King, Jr.] was the godfather to all three of us. He officiated our christening ceremonies, and he was there to really help to raise the three of us. He was always, always, always there. 

When I was a little girl growing up, I very seldom had time with my dad without Uncle Martin there. My mother was an amazing hostess and so Uncle Martin came over regularly. They were the best of friends. Then they moved to Atlanta, prior to the Freedom Riders, because Granddaddy King offered Uncle Martin a job, working at Ebenezer [Baptist Church], and he thought, “okay my son will be safe in Atlanta — he doesn’t need to be down in Montgomery where they are openly violent.” Daddy and mother used to talk about how he called every single day, trying to convince us that we need to come. 

My mother was like, “Listen, my husband is not going to Atlanta, Georgia, to work for the Senate, because my husband is a pastor, and he has to have a church.” My mother was very strong; she was not a docile, quiet wife at all. She had an opinion and she wanted everybody to know it. She was an equal partner at the table, always. So, Granddaddy King went and found a church for my father, which is what literally moved us. I remember that moving day leaving Montgomery, and waiting for an Allied Van Lines truck with the orange on it. 

Did you love Montgomery or did you feel conflicted about living there? Did you ever feel you were in danger?

Of course I felt danger living there, but I didn’t know the difference because it was the only life I knew. We moved when I was four, so even when you’re little like that, you just go with the flow of what the environment provides for you. 

I knew there was danger when the policemen were there in the backyard. My mother always told us about, and we had a photograph on the wall of, our old house that was firebombed. The white supremacists would call in the morning and threaten to kill us, and then they would call again in the evening. 

I was so young, but my sister was very traumatized by the whole thing, so we made up our own little baby language. As soon as I got old enough to speak, my sister asked me to speak for her. She wanted to not speak, so I would do the talking. And I guess life was pretty exciting. 

The Freedom Riders — that part was thrilling. But there was an element of danger about Montgomery. Montgomery was a very small town. The nice thing was my grandmother lived not far away in Uniontown, Alabama and my father’s relatives, all of his brothers and sisters, lived in Linden, all near Selma. So, with lots of relatives not far away, that was lovely. My father had been a professor at Alabama State University, so we were part of the college community as well, which gives you a comfortable sheltering environment. 

However, the civil rights movement at that point was pretty rough and violent. When my mother had been pregnant with me was when they bombed our home and my father’s church, and they also bombed the home of Reverend and Mrs. Robert Gratz, a white pastor of a black congregation. 

White people would come to our house because they were an integrated group, like Glenn Smiley, who talks about non violence, he was always around. But whenever white people were over, the police would sit outside and then take down the license plates of the people who came to my parents’ house to socialize, and then harass those people afterwards. I was aware of that.

As a kid did feeling this way ever confuse you? Were you confused about why these types of things were happening and why people felt this way?

I did have some confusion about why some white people didn’t like Black people, and didn’t want to be associated with us, and why there was segregation, and why they had a white bathroom and why there was a Black bathroom. 

Why was there a white water fountain, which was nice and cold? Why was there a Black water fountain whose water was always warm, and the sink was so small and dirty?

I didn’t understand because there were other white people that were in our lives that came into our home, and they were loving and they were not representative of what I assumed the rest of white people thought. That’s the confusion that I still have today. 

When you’re the victim of racial injustice on a daily basis, whether there is a racial slight that is physical and violent toward you, or a sneer, or a woman holding her purse, or the way people look at you. These slights, the lack of courtesy, you know it just throws you and it’s just the reality when you are a person of color in America. 

The question is, “why do they feel so entitled to be so ill mannered based on the color of your skin?” Manners are not a coat to take on and off — you need to be gracious and kind to everyone, regardless of their race, or their economic situation. They are human beings. So, the separation, I didn’t understand. And I still have trouble grappling with this, even today.

That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot, wondering how children are feeling growing up today, witnessing the protests of last year and the confusion that they might feel.

You see when you have protests though, that’s not confusing. It’s very clear. That is letting people know that there is injustice. And we’re standing up and speaking out against that injustice. Children aren’t confused by that. 

What children are confused about is the duplicitous environment where you have a parent that treats a person of a different race or different ethnicity differently, and then they see a white person and their parent is happy and gracious and kind. There’s a different tone, and children can feel and see the intangible, unspoken energy that is being conveyed. That’s what’s confusing to them. 

Speaking of this up-and-coming generation, it was mentioned to me also that you had a hand in mentoring the rising poet, Amanda Gorman. How do you feel about her recent accomplishments and about her generation?

The thing about this new generation today is that they’re very clear. They’re very smart, and they’re very aware. Thankfully, they have the internet and social media where they can communicate with each other and they communicate very honestly with each other. 

So, they understand why Colin Kaepernick took a knee, and that it wasn’t a slight against our national anthem, it was him asking for justice for people of color — for those who are being killed disproportionately in the streets across America, by law enforcement, or if not by law enforcement, like in Georgia, when a young man was simply running in his neighborhood. So I think young people understand. 

The other thing about this young generation is that they are the victims of gun violence in their classrooms, in their schools and where they attend concerts. They want to be able to go to school without fear and they want to grow up in a healthy, free environment, so they’re very clear and very outspoken about it. When they jump into organizing these marches and take to the streets all across America, they’re showing legislators that they need to understand. 

It reminds me of the young people of the 60s, who spun off of the civil rights movement and were against the war in Vietnam. When I was growing up, they were my heroes. My father used to drive us to a certain section of downtown on the weekends, so that we could see all the young hippies holding protest signs. They were so committed, and they are very much like how the young people are today. They are my hope. 

I first met Amanda Gorman and her sister at New Roads School, where I’d sit on the floor and tell them stories about the civil rights movement. Amanda started watching me from first grade all the way through 12th grade, and so it was really incredible when in 2013 Amanda contacted her priest and told them that she wanted to have a celebration to honor the 50th anniversary of the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church, and wanted me to come and speak. 

I was blown away that this young girl had put this all together, and after that, she decided I had to come back to the high school to speak. When I went back to speak then she wanted to organize something else. I’m so inspired by her, and very proud of her.

What do you think your parents would think about what’s happening right now in America? 

I honestly believe that they would be so inspired by the young people and the Black Lives Matter movement. The beautiful thing is it is a much more diverse movement than the civil rights movement, which is incredibly wonderful. 

The diversity of that movement and the fact that people have come together not only in America but all over the world is inspirational. People have taken to the streets and spoken openly about racial injustice, and so I know that they would be very inspired by that. I know that they would ask me to make sure that I am a part of every march and every demonstration, and to try and speak wherever I can. 

I know that they would be asking us as a nation to come together. And the way for us to come together right now is for the members of Congress to reach out to their fellow elected officials and appeal to them to do that which is morally right. 

My parents would be reaching out to support Speaker Pelosi and her efforts. They would be smiling from ear to ear — I know my mother would – because of our vice president Kamala Harris, who marched with my mother across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. And I know that my father would be so proud of our President Joseph Robinette Biden because when I was young, my father admired him as a senator. They would be asking us to be actively involved in any way that we could to help him to succeed, because the task before him to unite America is a difficult one. But it is a necessary one. 

To wrap up, I’m wondering if there’s anything that you’re involved in that you want readers to keep their eye on?

I want everyone to hear “The Listening.” It’s absolutely beautiful, and it’s about silence and listening, and the new spirit rising. Cheryl [B. Engelhardt]‘s song speaks to the awakening in the hearts of the young people across America and the world. 

It’s wonderful that Cheryl takes this speech [The Listening is inspired by Martin Luther King’s 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break Silence”], and it inspires her to create a magnificent masterpiece of a song. I do my best to be the soloist in it, but I think it needs to be a part of something even bigger that Cheryl needs to compose because she’s a brilliant composer, and she has an eye that’s different. I’m blown away that she even asked me to participate. I’m humbled by it, and it literally makes me cry. 

You can listen to and watch Cheryl B. Engelhardt’s “The Listening” here.