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Martin Luther King Jr.’s Goddaughter on Telling Stories of Courage

By David Ertischek ’01

Donzaleigh Abernathy ‘80 knew she wanted to attend college in Boston.

Headshot of woman
Donzaleigh Abernathy. ’80

“I had a friend at Emerson. I loved that it was so quaint. It was in Back Bay right near the Charles River,” said Abernathy. “The smallness of the classes. I said, ‘Yes, I’m going to Emerson.’ My father was like, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure?’ I said, ‘Yes.’…The friends I made are still my friends today.”

Her father’s voice was very important to her and to millions more. The Rev. Dr. Ralph David Abernathy was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s best friend and closest advisor. The two went to jail together 17 times, according to Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. After being shot, King died in her father’s arms.

To her, King was “Uncle Martin” and her godfather. The two families had regular family dinners every Friday night, every Sunday afternoon immediately following church service at a restaurant, and then again late Sunday evening at her family’s house. On Saturdays, the families had “cultural activities” for the children.

“We’d go rambling through [King’s] office, and he’d let us,” said Abernathy, 63.

People sing on day four of the Selma to Montgomery March.
Dr. Ralph David Abernathy and his wife Juanita Abernathy follow with Dr. and Mrs. Martin Luther King as the Abernathy children march on the front line, leading the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965. The Children are Donzaleigh Abernathy ’80 in striped sweater, Ralph David Abernathy III, and Juandalynn R. Abernathy in glasses. The name of the white priest in the photo is unknown. (Courtesy Donzaleigh Abernathy)

As a young child, she had a front row to history. She participated in the Selma to Montgomery March for voting rights when she was 7 years old. She gave her first public speech at the Washington D.C. Children’s March for Survival in 1972.

“We’d go into airports, and media would just bombard them,” she said, recalling commonly seeing her father and godfather on television. “I knew when I was little that what they were doing was important. I had been to the March on Washington. My parents opened their homes to people of different races. My mother was a great hostess and I would help her. I learned from many important people, some were entertainers, politicians, and people I had seen on TV.”

Those experiences led to her being an entertainer, author, and activist.

Donzaleigh Abernathy ’80 read from her book Partners to History at ELA in 2015. From left to right: Enrique Rivera ’15, Caroline Lacy ’15, Chris Hyacinthe ’12, Abernathy, Nancy Isaacs ’79, Stephen Farrier ’75, and Leslie Moraes Davis ’80.

As an actor, she played a leading role in Gods and Generals with Robert Duval and Jeff Daniels, starred in HBO’s Don King: Only in America, and indulged her love of Shakespeare in The Tempest, starring as the love interest of Peter Fonda. She was a series regular in 64 episodes of the Lifetime series Any Day Now, had a recurring role on ABC’s Commander in Chief, the TV adaptation of Dangerous Minds, and has guest starred on many hit shows, including Suits, Chicago P.D., and The Walking Dead.

Her coffee table pictorial book, Partners to History: Martin Luther King, Ralph David Abernathy and the Civil Rights Movement, was nominated as one of the Best Books of 2004 for young adults by the American Library Association.

She served on the first Board of Trustees of the New Roads School in Santa Monica, California, and speaks there every year for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, where she met National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman when she was a student.

The Listening with lead vocals by Donzaleigh Abernathy

Her latest project is as the lead singer on “The Listening,” a song by Cheryl Engelhardt inspired by MLK’s 1967 speech Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.

“We grew up with [King and Ralph Abernathy] talking about being against war. But this was the first public condemnation of that war, and what it would do to our young people. And the question was: What are we doing over there?” Abernathy said of the speech.

Her father had served as a sergeant in World War II and decided during the war, when everyone in his company was killed except for him and another soldier, that he would commit himself to nonviolence and opposing war. 

“There is a new spirit rising in the masses in the nation. It is our purpose. [In the song] I sing for the voiceless,” said Abernathy. “We’re also addressing the unrest of the Black Lives Matter movement that young people were speaking about across America this past summer.”

She said she’s also working on a documentary about King and her father. 

“I would rather tell their story the right way. People don’t know my dad and understand his relationship with Uncle Martin. They made me courageous. Being courageous is when you’re afraid and still going forward. That’s what courage is,” said Abernathy. 

“I want to tell their stories,” she added.

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