Rev. Ralph Abernathy's daughter remembers 'uncle Martin' Luther King Jr.

Jan 16 2014 - 10:05am

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Donzaleigh Abernathy, actress, producer, director and daughter of civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy, spoke Wednesday at Weber State University as part of a Martin Luther King, Jr., celebration. She lingered after talk to greet audience members, including Gauge Vause, 9, of Ogden, who is interested in civil rights history. 011514 (NANCY VAN VALKENBURG/Standard-Examiner)
Donzaleigh Abernathy, actress, producer, director and daughter of civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy, spoke Wednesday at Weber State University as part of a Martin Luther King, Jr., celebration. Projected behind Abernathy is an image of father Ralph and mother Juanita Abernathy. 011514 (NANCY VAN VALKENBURG/Standard-Examiner)
Donzaleigh Abernathy, actress, producer, director and daughter of civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy, spoke Wednesday at Weber State University as part of a Martin Luther King, Jr., celebration. She stayed after her talk to talk to audience members. 011514 (NANCY VAN VALKENBURG/Standard-Examiner)
Donzaleigh Abernathy, actress, producer, director and daughter of civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy, spoke Wednesday at Weber State University as part of a Martin Luther King, Jr., celebration. She lingered after talk to greet audience members, including Gauge Vause, 9, of Ogden, who is interested in civil rights history. 011514 (NANCY VAN VALKENBURG/Standard-Examiner)
Donzaleigh Abernathy, actress, producer, director and daughter of civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy, spoke Wednesday at Weber State University as part of a Martin Luther King, Jr., celebration. Projected behind Abernathy is an image of father Ralph and mother Juanita Abernathy. 011514 (NANCY VAN VALKENBURG/Standard-Examiner)
Donzaleigh Abernathy, actress, producer, director and daughter of civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy, spoke Wednesday at Weber State University as part of a Martin Luther King, Jr., celebration. She stayed after her talk to talk to audience members. 011514 (NANCY VAN VALKENBURG/Standard-Examiner)

OGDEN -- Donzaleigh Abernathy was part of civil rights history eight months before she was born.

"Mother was home alone with my sister, and I was in my mother's womb," said Abernathy, daughter of civil rights activist Rev. Ralph Abernathy. "She said she'd fallen asleep in the living room and the angels awakened her and she went in the bedroom. Ten minutes later the whole front of the house exploded."

Donzaleigh Abernathy spoke Wednesday at Weber State University as part of the school's Martin Luther King Jr., celebration. She said if better educated men had planned the attacks that January 1957 night, in Montgomery, Ala., they would have put it closer to a fuel line.

"The entire house would have erupted in a big, huge explosion and everyone would have died, and I never would have been born," she said.

Her father's church was also bombed that night, as were three additional buildings linked to the civil rights movement. The explosions followed a successful bus boycott, organized by King and Ralph Abernathy, which targeted laws requiring black people to sit at the back of the bus.

"It's a blessing, the circumstances of my life," she said. "It's not that I'm a great person, I just happened to be born into an incredible family. It's the greatest gift God has given me."

Donzaleigh Abernathy makes her living as an actress, director and producer. She is best known for writing and starring in "Birmingham Sunday," and appeared for four years on Lifetime's "Any Day Now." She was in "Gods And Generals," and co-starred opposite Ving Rhames in "Don King: Only in America." Fans of the TV cult favorite, "Walking Dead," may remember her as Woodbury's doctor.

But she also speaks as an eyewitness to history, and god-daughter of King, whom she referred to as "uncle Martin." Her father and King met by chance. Both were reverends in the South, and King was selected as a spokesman for a coalition of leaders who sought to raise awareness of discrimination and seek reform through peaceful means.

"Uncle Martin was shy and reserved and gentle, and sweet and loving," Abernathy told her WSU audience. "He had a calling upon him, and often times people run when they have this calling upon him. You don't want to do it. ... But Daddy and uncle Martin, especially uncle Martin, was so special because it wasn't about him. It was about the greater cause. And they rose to the occasion." 

King and Ralph Abernathy were harassed constantly, through anonymous phone calls and trumped up charges, including loitering, Donzaleigh Abernathy said. She showed pictures of the Kings and Abernathys socializing in happy times, and photos of her father and King, beside each other at press conferences and in jail. She shared her late father's memories of the night of April 4, 1968, when King was assassinated by James Earl Ray in Memphis. 

King and Ralph Abernathy were headed out to dinner, and Abernathy left the hotel room first, his daughter said. Upon catching a whiff of King's cologne, Abernathy realized he had forgotten to apply his own. He returned to the room and was preparing to pat Aramis on his cheeks when Abernathy heard something that sounded like fire crackers.

"He turned and he looked and he saw uncle Martin's feet," Donzaleigh Abernathy said. "Everyone had scattered when the gun went off, and Dad ran to uncle Martin." 

Ralph Abernathy tried his best to comfort King as they waited for an ambulance. Doctors told Abernathy King's spinal cord had been severed and the organ damage was non-survivable. Abernathy cradled King as he took a last breath.

"And then he was gone," Donzaleigh Abernathy said. "Daddy used to say he had known a soldier of the cross. And like Abraham Lincoln, he (King) now belongs to the ages. He was a prolific, dynamic, loving, incredible man. He's the reason I stand here today. I just want somebody to know about him. I don't want you to think he's just a monument that sits in Washington, or that he's a holiday or a street or a school. There was a man under that, a man who had fear, a man who was taunted every single day of his life, but a man who decided that as black people we need to stand up. We need to inject new meaning into the veins of civilization. He was a man who said, 'I don't want you to hate your oppressor, I want you to love your oppressor, and us come together to make America stand up to those principles on which this country was founded."

Abernathy remembers her father saying he had one friend in his life, and he was blessed.

"They were great men, and I want to tell the story to help everyone know what they did to change the world," Donzaleigh Abernathy said, her voice cracking with emotion.

"They taught us how to love. They taught us how to live. The question is, as our president said, what are you going to do with your life? We have meaning. If you only begin in the smallest way, we can make this a world a better place. We don't have to fight each other over racism."

Contact reporter Nancy Van Valkenburg at 801-625-4275 or nvan@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @S_ENancyVanV.

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