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Abernathy ’80 shares dad’s civil rights stories

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Donzaleigh Abernathy '80, an actor and autor of Partners to History, a book detailing the Civil Rights Movement activites of her father, Ralph David Abernathy, spoke about the movement at Emerson Los Angeles on February 3. (Photo by Daryl Paranada)

Actor and author Donzaleigh Abernathy ’80 shared stories about growing up as the daughter of civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy—which included marching from Selma to Montgomery—during a lecture at Emerson College Los Angeles on February 3.

Presented by the EBONI Alumni Association, Abernathy’s lecture, “The Civil Rights Movement and the Historic Selma to Montgomery March,” was full of personal stories about her time growing up as a child of the 1960s. She shared pictures and memories of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (whom she affectionately referred to as “Uncle Martin”), her father, Rosa Parks, and other men and women whose stories are less well known.

Abernathy, who wrote the book Partners to History: Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph David Abernathy, and the Civil Rights Movement, shared anecdotes that described the close friendship between her father and King.

“They did everything together,” said Abernathy. “They loved life.”

She told stories of how her father and King traveled West together with Coretta Scott King pretending to be Mexican to avoid trouble, how they wore the same clothes and Aramis cologne, and why the Kings always wanted to meet at the Abernathy home.

“Everything happened at our house because my mom could cook,” said Abernathy.

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Enrique Rivera '15, Caroline Lacy '15, Chris Hyacinthe '12, Donzaleigh Abernathy '80, Nancy Isaacs '79, Stephen Farrier '75, and Leslie Moraes Davis '80 pose with the cover of Abernathy's new book at Emerson LA. (Photo by Daryl Paranada)

Born in 1957, Abernathy said she came out of her mother shaking because her parents’ home was bombed while she was in the womb. She told the audience she had been tear-gassed at least five times in her life and how she did not use a public restroom for years after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four young girls.

“That was my earliest knowledge of death,” said Abernathy, who participated in all of the major civil rights marches.

When it comes to the new film Selma, Abernathy took umbrage with how some of the events were portrayed. She said that Lyndon Baines Johnson was not as adversarial as the film claimed; that there were many important people left out of the movie; and that dramatic license was used in a few scenes.

“I liked Selma because it captured the spirit of the movement,” said Abernathy. “What upset me was they got important things wrong like Lyndon Baines Johnson and my father.”

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Abernathy speaks at Emerson LA. (Photo by Daryl Paranada)

Among the audience members listening to Abernathy’s stories was Connor Buso-Jarnis ’15, a Visual and Media Arts major who had watched Selma and was interested in learning more. 

“It was interesting to see how the historical perspective changes through media,” said Buso-Jarnis. “It’s cool to hear a first-hand account.”

Asked whether she would take her lecture elsewhere, Abernathy responded with a resounding “yes.”

“I like to tell history and it’s important,” said Abernathy. “I’m proud of who I am and the road that I have come from.”