“The astounding thing about the Movement is how those who had been so abused by the legal system embraced it so fervently. It was the belief and the moral courage demonstrated y many of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement to live this philosophy that gave the Movement such appeal to Americans of other races.” —Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
An Interview by Jerry Jazz Musician with Donzaleigh Abernathy, Rev. Dr. Ralph Abernathy’s Youngest Daughter.
JJM: At one point in the book you wrote about how your mother was saddened by your family’s decision to move from Montgomery to Atlanta in 1961. Clearly your father had great individual challenges during the civil rights movement that many of us are aware of, but what was your family’s greatest challenge?
DA: Before I was born, our family home was bombed while my mother and sister were in the house. During my own childhood, several times a week some hateful, racist person would call during dinner time and tell my mother what would become of us and my father. She would hang up the phone and we would eat the remainder of our dinner in silence. So, the biggest challenge was probably in trying to find happiness and humor and the ability to keep going in the midst of all this stress.
My mother was incredibly strong. If it were me in her position at that time, I probably would have told my husband that you can’t do this anymore, that I can’t have our family live in fear like this. She had an amazing ability to summon up her courage. Since my Daddy was often times gone Monday through Friday, she raised us almost as a single woman. She would tell us not to worry, that everything would be okay. She would get us involved by telling us to do our part in integrating the local elementary school, and to participate in the civil rights marches. And every time something happened that would create fear in us, it did not stop her — in fact, it strengthened her. She was convinced that what my father was leading and what we as a family were doing was the right thing, and each child was expected to do their part.
JJM: So your parents had high expectations for you to participate, even as a little girl.
DA: Oh yes.
“The issues involved in this confrontation are moral as well as legal. The Negro is causing the nation to gain a new image of himself. For it is in our tradition that when people have self-respect, nothing can keep them from asserting the inalienable rights of free men, women and children. I emphasize children, for in most instances children have led the crusade for human dignity.”
– Ralph Abernathy, from the speech “Accepting the Challenge of the Age: Love and Race Relations.” May 19, 1964
JJM: How did your father’s philosophy of non-violence affect your daily life?
DA: Well, when you are a little kid, you don’t necessarily want to be non-violent. Kids want to beat up on their siblings and carry on, but we couldn’t. We couldn’t even play with water guns or any of the other toys children played with at the time. We could fill up a balloon with water and squirt each other with it, but that was about it. I will never forget how the little white girls at school would come to fight me, because I was the only black girl in the class, but I would tell them I would not fight because I am non-violent. They were amazed by that, and I repeated that I am non-violent and am not going to lower myself to fight them, that I am above that. I wanted to sound philosophical when communicating to them, which was something my father taught me, and I was supposed to quell the violent urges of other people, as well as my own, and make non-violence a way of life. Even in the privacy of our home, when we would complain about people who didn’t treat us right, my father was the first to say that it was inappropriate to talk unkindly of others, that it was important to understand their perspective. It was a huge moral code we were expected to live by within our family.
JJM: When you were a little girl did you have a sense of the enormity of the events that your father and Uncle Martin were leading?
DA: Yes, but only because I went to the March on Washington. I was four years old at the time, and I had never seen such a sea of people. While I knew the event was something big, I didn’t realize the importance of it. I knew his work was important because I would see him on the news, and other little children’s parents were not. I would see him and Uncle Martin on television, speaking throughout the community all the time, and it became a normal thing. So, yes, I understood the size of it, but the not the importance — probably not until I became a woman. And, I have to say that I didn’t know that Uncle Martin was anything other than Uncle Martin, and Daddy was anything other than Daddy. When Uncle Martin died, Daddy worked so hard to establish a national holiday in his honor, and all of a sudden Uncle Martin rose as this legend. I remember wishing I had known how enormous their work was, and I should have paid more attention! But, I was just a little girl at the time, rambling through stuff in their office.
I used to play in Uncle Martin’s office and go through his papers and books, messing everything up. And at the end of church, all of us would go over there and drink his ginger ale.
Ms. Donzaleigh Abernathy, youngest daughter of Rev. Dr. Ralph and Mrs. Juanita Abernathy, was the Keynote Speaker for the MLK 2017 Celebration that took place at Savage Hall Arena at the University of Toledo. Several thousands attended with local Artists, politicians, Leaders, Officials, Clergy, and Students to pay homage on this day to Dr. King. Echoes continued to ring out through speaker after speaker as to the importance of this day and the remembrances that need not go silent in the minds and hearts of people, even though the struggle continues.
Ms. Abernathy continues to impact as she travels and shares her story growing up in the thicket of the Movement with Dr. King, his family and her family. The above interview symbolizes just how much the role that her family had on who she has become and the relevance of her voice today!
The MLK Celebration is sponsored annually by the City of Toledo, Board of Community Relations, Linda Alvarado Arce, Director, and The University of Toledo. A free meal was provided by We Are Ribs Catering.