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Donzaleigh Abernathy: A Connection with Martin Luther King Jr.

By The 700 Club
February 5, 2004

CBN.comA Loving Legacy

Donzaleigh is the third child of the Reverend Ralph David Abernathy, who co-founded the Civil Rights Movement with his closest friend, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As far back as she can remember, Donzaleigh's father had greatly impacted her life. One of her earliest memories was her father buying hamburgers for her sister and her. The family was driving on Alabama Highway 80 one evening, and the girls asked for hamburgers. Ralph David Abernathy refused and wouldn’t stop. After the girls pestered him more, he relented, stopped, and got them hamburgers. When he returned and gave them the hamburgers, he told them he would never do that again. Later, when Donzaleigh was older, she learned that her father risked his life getting the hamburgers because restaurants were not allowed to serve blacks. She learned he had to sneak around to the back of the restaurant where another black man served him. Ralph David taught God’s love and forgivenesss, as well as the importance of serving others, by example . During the turbulent struggle for racial equality, Donzaleigh and her family felt safe as long as her father was there. Ralph David told his family that God would take care of them and not to fear.

Partners Called by God

It was the late 1940s when Ralph David Abernathy and Martin Luther King Jr. met twice briefly. They were reconnected in the early 1950s and became inseparable. They had similar lives as pastors and shared a common vision for the progression of civil rights. Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, Ralph David focused on practical applications while Martin Luther King Jr. expounded on philosophies.

On January 10, 1957, the Alabama homes of Ralph David and Martin Luther King Jr. were bombed. Along with their homes, four churches, including Martin Luther King Jr's. were also targeted, in a failed attempt to stop the Movement. Ralph David and Martin Luther King Jr. were in Atlanta at the time and were relieved to find that God had protected their families.

Their families were very close and actively participated in events together, like the Selma to Montgomery March. When the King family moved from Alabama to Atlanta in 1960, at the urging of Martin Luther King Jr., the Abernathy family soon followed.

According to Donzaleigh, Ralph David was known to be fearless and Martin Luther King Jr. called Ralph David "his rock." The evening before Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, both Ralph David and King were called to speak in Memphis. Not following the usual program order, Ralph David spoke first and paid tribute to his dearest friend, Martin Luther King Jr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot early morning on April 4, 1968, and he died later at the hospital in Ralph David's arms. Ralph David was very grieved at the loss of his friend but continued to carry the torch of his and Martin Luther King Jr.'s life mission together with projects like the Poor People's Campaign. Of her father's work, Donzaleigh is most proud of the Voting Rights Act, establishing the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, and free meal programs in public schools for low-income children.

A Call to Serve

As a young child, Donzaleigh knew she wanted to be baptized but was told she was too young. At the age of 11, Donzaleigh demonstrated her own growing faith and her earliest mission call of giving hope to others. A ruptured appendix brought her close to death. Though she knew she was going to be fine, her family was afraid she would die. Eventually, she recovered and gave hope and encouragement to another critically injured girl in the same hospital ward.

Her father instilled in her the call to love and take care of the less fortunate; however, for most of her life, Donzaleigh felt the need to serve her father since he was always serving others. In 1989, Ralph David told Donzaleigh she had to move to Los Angeles from Atlanta and start living her own life. He felt that her taking care of him was hindering the call God had for her life.

She left Atlanta for Los Angeles. As she was driving cross-country, she heard a voice telling her that she had to tell the story and that she would be an actress. Not long afterward, Donzaleigh began working on the book Partners to History and she started getting work as an actress in Los Angeles. In 1990 Rev. Ralph David Abernathy died. When Donzaleigh was at her father’s casket, she told him that she would follow Jesus.

Following the Father's Footsteps

Donzaleigh had been twice told by God to tell the story of Ralph David and Martin Luther King Jr.; thus, Partners to History was born. It is a personal account of the Civil Rights Movement and faith in God, much of it told in the words of Ralph David and Martin Luther King Jr., along with poignant photograghs. A teacher told her that students who cannot read well are able to learn about the Civil Rights Movement through the photographs in the book.

Donzaleigh has been in several major film and television productions, such as Gods and Generals, Don King: Only in America, Miss Evers’ Boys, Chicago Hope, Murder in Mississippi, and EZ Streets. Before each acting scene she says, 'Jesus, Savior, pilot me,' giving the Lord control.

Donzaleigh knows that God is in control and she is not. During the L.A. Riots, she first became involved in serving the less fortunate in her community. She began to distribute groceries to people in the city when stores were burned down. Later, she became reaquainted with Glenn Smiley, who taught her father and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the principles of nonviolence shortly after the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the late 1950s. This led to a series of events that eventually established New Road Schools, which tries to encourage diversity and tolerance in its curriculum.

Whatever her endeavor, Donzaleigh tries to follow the example of faith in God she learned from her father.

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