Actor, singer, writer, and civil rights activist Donzaleigh Abernathy is goddaughter of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and daughter of the Reverend Dr. Ralph David Abernathy, King’s best friend and partner in the civil rights movement — who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and became president of it after King’s assassination on April 4, 1968. Her mother was civil rights activist Juanita Abernathy.
As a child, Abernathy witnessed some of the most inspiring and formative moments of the civil rights movement — and some of the most sobering. She also grew up knowing and loving the man she called Uncle Martin, whose stances against racism, poverty, and war remain as relevant today as they were when he first voiced them. Also relevant are his calls for creative maladjustment, meaning the refusal to adjust to society’s many ills.
Abernathy is the author of Partners to History: Martin Luther King, Ralph David Abernathy and the Civil Rights Movement. She also contributed to the Smithsonian Institute’s In the Spirit of Martin.
As an actor, she’s known for her many roles in films — such as the civil war drama Gods and Generals — and many series, including the Lifetime drama Any Day Now and zombie-apocalypse series The Walking Dead. In addition, she is the lead soloist in a new choral piece, The Listening, composed by Cheryl B. Engelhardt for the Voices 21C Choir in New York City. It’s inspired by an anti-war speech King delivered exactly one year before his death, and it’s been released as a single and a video.
The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the audio of the interview here.
Amy Biancolli: Let’s start, if you don’t mind, by going back in time to your childhood. From what I’ve read, I gather your family and the King family were a tight bunch.
Donzaleigh Abernathy: We grew up together, and Daddy and Uncle Martin were best friends. They actually met when my dad was at Atlanta University, getting his master’s degree in sociology, and Uncle Martin was an undergraduate student — and granddaddy King invited my father and a group of other young ministers to hear Uncle Martin preach his first sermon ever. And Uncle Martin was, you know, wonderful. So, at the end of the service, my dad walked over to him and shook hands to compliment him. And there was chemistry between the two of them. They liked each other instantaneously.
A few weeks later, my dad had a date with this young lady. He called her earlier on that Sunday about the date, and she said she had a cold, she couldn’t go.
So, he went to the concert alone — and under the tree, he saw Martin Luther King. As he gets to Uncle Martin, he sees Uncle Martin’s arm is wrapped around the tree. And they speak for a few minutes — and then my dad just follows the arm, and then on the other side of the arm was the woman who had told my dad she was sick. She stood him up for a date with Uncle Martin — and literally, that’s how their friendship began, over this young lady.
Biancolli: I understand that as a girl, you remember the Freedom Riders coming to your house — or the march from Selma to Montgomery. Are there any particular critical moments in the civil rights movement that pop out at you?
Abernathy: Oh, my goodness. I remember the march on Washington, which was absolutely tremendous — and, you know, having to form a chain.
And then we participated in the Selma to Montgomery march. And then we went to Chicago for the housing protests, because we wanted fair housing and integration. And they threw things at us. That was the only time when we actually received violence, was in Chicago. People threw stuff at us. So, they whisked us away to these cars, and I remember being in the car with dad and Uncle Martin as they were trying to make the decision what to do.
Biancolli: And you have other memories of darker moments, too. From what I’ve read, the Ku Klux Klan called your family repeatedly, both in Alabama and then in Atlanta.
Abernathy: Every night.
Biancolli: Every night.
Abernathy: It would come. Every day. Every day, without fail, at dinner time. Every day.
Biancolli: As a kid, that must have been so terrifying.
Abernathy: That was terrifying. It was incredibly terrifying, as well as the hate mail that they would send and say that my father was savage in nature, and that he was an embarrassment to his race and that we were better off here in America living in segregation than we were as animals in Africa. It was just disgusting, but the thing is, when they called in the evening, they said they were going to kill us. And so we would eat the rest of our dinner in silence.
My mother, you know, she — we — knew when the call would come, and we would be pretty much silent for the rest of the evening.
Then the other thing was, you didn’t know if you were going to make it through the night, because they had already bombed our home before.
Biancolli: I was going to ask about that. You were literally in utero, right?
Abernathy: Right, and when I was born, I awakened trembling. I literally came out of my mother’s womb trembling, awakened. It is, I guess — birth is an awakening. And then I trembled for six months. I guess I have separation anxiety. I know that every Monday morning, when my dad would have to leave, I would cry before I went to school, because I didn’t know if I would ever see him again.
Biancolli: He had told you that he might well be assassinated, right? He’d had that conversation with you?
Abernathy: Mm-hmm. Yes, he did. So, in 1963, when Medgar Evers was murdered in his driveway in front of his kids, and [his daughter] Reena Evers tells me, or she told me that — oh, it was horrible. She and her brothers, they wanted to go outside, but their mother wouldn’t let them go outside for fear that the guy would shoot again. And their father is just lying there, dying.
So, Daddy had to explain that to us — and I know that Uncle Martin had to have that conversation with his kids.
Biancolli: How much of this were you able to process as a kid? Or is it one of these things where you look back, and you see all the trauma, and you say, okay, I can make sense of it in this context? I mean, can you ever make sense of it?
Abernathy: Well, you had to, and you did. I did at that moment. I knew that life was precious. Daddy and Uncle Martin wanted us to understand that life was precious. Therefore, their time with us at home as a family was sacred, but you had to process what was happening, because it was happening all around you, and segregation was something we had to deal with. And we knew that they were fighting for our freedom, and that we had endured, you know, 344 years of flat-out persecution, segregation — and 244 of those were slavery.
But somehow or another, I put that in the back of my mind and moved forward anyway. It was just a fact of life for us, but that’s trauma. Without a doubt, it’s trauma — and everybody handles trauma differently. My dad used to say, “You better decide if you’re going to be your own best friend or if you’re going to be your own worst enemy.”
Biancolli: So, turning to this song, this choral work, The Listening. It features you as a soloist. It’s inspired by the 1967 King speech, an anti-war speech called Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence, which he delivered as a sermon at Riverside Church. In your solo, you sing — beautifully.
Abernathy: Thank you.
Biancolli: “I turn my back when I hold my tongue. I cannot be silent. I cannot stand by and leave these words unsung. I cannot be silent.” Do you feel that as an imperative — that you cannot be silent?
Abernathy: I sure do. I sure do. Sometimes, I wish I could just turn my emotions and the brain off, and the mouth — but, yeah, I speak up, and I feel like I have a moral obligation to speak up, because so many people don’t. And when you see a wrong, you need to right it, and when you see injustice, you need to speak out against it. And I do that naturally. It’s what I was taught and that was how I was raised, and I’m so glad that that’s what Uncle Martin and my dad did.
When Rosa Parks was arrested, my dad was the one who issued the first call for the creation of the civil rights movement — and he pulled Uncle Martin in. He was like, “Listen, we have to do this,” and Uncle Martin was like, “I don’t know,” and then Daddy was like, “Yeah. You’re doing this with me, and I’m going to pick you up every night, and you’re going to go with me to these mass meetings. We have to do this.” And so my dad led this and began that charge — and so he walked with Uncle Martin the whole way, and he never gave up, and even after Uncle Martin died, my dad was still in there, pushing for affirmative action and then for the free meal program that low-income children get today in schools as well as food stamps.
Biancolli: In an earlier speech from 1966, called Don’t Sleep Through the Revolution, your Uncle Martin called for “creative maladjustment.” He said, “Everybody passionately seeks to be well-adjusted . . . There are some things in this world to which men of goodwill must be maladjusted.” And he said, “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.”
What you’re describing is not just one person being creatively maladjusted — but many people in the civil rights movement who were maladjusted. Is that the case? Does it speak to you and speak to your memories of your dad and your godfather?
Abernathy: Absolutely. I’d never heard that Uncle Martin addressed it in that kind of way, but I remember hearing them say that when good men are silent, that’s when evil runs amok — and that people turn a blind eye.
And so that goes along with that maladjustment that Uncle Martin speaks about in his sermon. At that point, when he speaks about that, I know that he is appealing to white people.
Biancolli: Does it also speak to the importance and validity of being other than what society recognizes as “normal?”
Abernathy: Correct. It does.
Biancolli: In the mental health system, and societal evils including systemic racism, there is this idea across the culture that says, oh, you need to be “normal” with a capital N. But isn’t being the opposite, being non-conformist, the real path to societal change? Is there some kind of power, even, to being maladjusted?
Abernathy: Absolutely. There is definite power in it — and the strength. And it takes courage, but you cannot go along with the norm if the norm is saying, “Oh, the emperor has on all these clothes,” when you can very clearly see that the emperor is naked. So, you’ve got to be strong enough to say, “That emperor is naked — he doesn’t have anything on.”
And if that’s maladjusted, then I guess I need to be maladjusted, because I want to be able to see the world clearly — and I think that’s what everybody really needs to do, is to see society clearly, to see the situation clearly, to see the faults that there are in a society or in a government.
Biancolli: There’s a book from 2011 by the psychiatrist Nassir Ghaemi — it’s called A First-Rate Madness. It looks at the many visionary world leaders who struggled with depression and other psychological pain, and he talks about King.
Abernathy: Uncle Martin did not suffer from any kind of depression that I’m aware of. You know, he was funny. He was amusing like Eddie Murphy. He had a different persona that he presented to the public. He thought that white people did not need to see us laughing and carrying on like they did when the door was shut. And Uncle Martin could mimic people. He could hear someone speak and mimic their voice, their gesture, and everything. He was really gifted and charismatic, and compelling, but he didn’t want people to see that silly side of him, especially in a public forum. So, maybe that’s how someone could come to the idea that he was depressed.
I know that in those last years, the movement shifted, and then it became the Black power struggle. There was a power struggle within the Black community for other people to rise up. Stokely Carmichael came, and he wanted to take the scene. Before that, Malcolm X was there.
And so I think, for Uncle Martin, that may have been a little depressing and sad. However, he was working on the poor people’s campaign, which was thrilling and wonderful, and he was telling my dad, “We’re going to revive the soul of America,” you know.
I know that there was a little bit of a transition and minor sadness, but I don’t know that there was all that sadness.
Biancolli: There’s an interview between your godfather and the journalist Martin Agronsky, and it’s quoted in that book I mentioned, A First-Rate Madness. He was talking about the guilt complex in the south. He kind of provides a psychoanalysis of systemic racism. Do you see this kind of dysfunction in society, this kind of systemic racism, as a form of disease?
Abernathy: I agree with Uncle Martin there. The other part is Uncle Martin was a philosophy major — and he always looked at the world in a very analytical way, and my dad, he got his master’s in sociology. They would break down behavior patterns in society and the norm — and seeing how people would be a part of a group, and you control that group. So there is that guilt complex which would lead to redemption.
And it has done so, especially now, since this [Jan. 6 Capitol] insurrection. But there are other people that get caught up and swept up, and even though they are guilty, they still keep going that way in a destructive pattern.
Biancolli: So if that is an example of a manifestation of this kind of disease — and if we regard systemic racism as a disease, white supremacy as a disease, and devastation and poverty as diseases — what’s the path to recovery?
Abernathy: I guess it’s creative redemption, and the human heart, to be able to — honestly, from your heart — look at a situation clearly. And to see injustice, and then having the courage to stand up. At first, to admit it to yourself that that is wrong, and that is injustice. And then having the courage to make those small steps. And that’s what people in the heartland across America are going to have to do right now.
Biancolli: In his drive to change the world, is he the Martin Luther King we revere today because of his struggles, because of all he had to go through and his maladjustment?
Abernathy: Absolutely. Unequivocally. You know, he was very sensitive — and that’s what I loved about Uncle Martin. He was incredibly sensitive, and he was a reluctant hero. He didn’t want to have to do this. My dad decided this is what they were going to do, but Uncle Martin had this gift to speak, and he realized it was a gift. After learning non-violence from Glenn Smiley and realizing they were put in this circumstance, Daddy used to say — and Uncle Martin used to say — “We are ordinary men put in extraordinary circumstances, and we just rose to the occasion.”
So then, you feel like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders — and that’s how it was. There were times when they would’ve wanted to give up, but they realized that they couldn’t, because no one had been successful thus far in 344 years for Black people in America. Therefore, they had a moral obligation to continue and to complete this course they were on until we were all free.
They believed that they were doing God’s will, and that’s what drove them.
Biancolli: How does he inspire you today?
Abernathy: Oh, my goodness.
Biancolli: It’s a whopper of a question, I know, but…
Abernathy: It’s okay, because now I speak about it. I wrote that history book. I’ve written another history book, which I just need to do my final run-through with that. I’ve written a play, a screenplay.
Biancolli: What’s that about? What’s the second book?
Abernathy: It’s 1619 to 1955. It’s the historical chronology of race in America, and it contains all of the major incidents that happened from 1619 to 1955, all the way up to [the lynching of] Emmett Till.
And then I have to tell the story about Daddy and Uncle Martin, which I write on regularly — my perspective of a child — because I want people to know who they were and what they did. And I want them to understand mother and Aunt Coretta were not just dumb wives. They were very smart, thinking women who were equally as engaged in this movement — but were not allowed to be in the forefront, because they were the wives.
But yes, they guide me, and I feel like they are on my shoulders, watching me.
The scariest thing was during the insurrection, I saw the man seated in Nancy Pelosi’s office with his feet on the desk — and something just said, “Look to the left.” And I looked to the left, and there was a picture of Daddy and Uncle Martin with Congressman John Lewis, marching in Montgomery, asking for voting rights. I saw my father’s face, and I just felt violated.
Biancolli: Is trauma too strong a word?
Abernathy: No. Trauma is very much — it brought back everything from the days of the civil rights movement. Everything. And I was antsy. I was upset. I was thinking that, oh my God, we might have to go to war. There would be a civil war, and I’m a nonviolent person, but what would I do?
So, yes, all of it came rushing back to me. It was heartbreaking. Then, there is the fear that when that moment comes, will you be willing to sacrifice your life in the fight for something greater? You have that question. At least, I did. And the answer is yes, I would make that sacrifice. I know that that question came to me as a little child. Would I be willing to make that sacrifice for our freedom? And yes.
Biancolli: How old were you? As a little child, how old were you when you had that thought?
Biancolli: Wow. So, your understanding of trauma, your relationship with it: are you, like your godfather, creatively maladjusted? And are we traumatized as a nation — and should we respond by being creatively maladjusted?
Abernathy: Yes, we are traumatized as a nation, and yes, we must respond by being maladjusted. We must. Our nation was founded upon slavery, which is a principle which is horrible, and we haven’t reckoned that to this day. There are people that are still in denial, and then there are people who are angry because of it.
So yeah, we need to deal with it. We need to address that — and our nation is traumatized.
Biancolli: I’m just reminded, as you speak, of the “slave castles” in Ghana — these fortresses that housed and shipped across the seas all of these stolen people, the enslaved. You stand inside them, and you can feel their pain. It’s such a reminder of the trauma that roots the founding of the nation.
Abernathy: You’re right. You cannot help but feel it. The first movie or show I ever worked on was Roots, and they put us in actual slave chambers. We were scantily clad. We barely had on any clothing, and then they locked those gates in order to film the story, because right outside, there was the auction block and you could feel the energy of slaves — of what it was like for them. And you could feel the pain.
I don’t know any other way to describe it, but it’s very tangible and real.
Biancolli: All that you’ve been talking about, and also all that King spoke of — was that we have to face the pain. That’s part of being creatively maladjusted, right? Whether personally or systemically, you have to move through it and use the pain to empower. Does that make sense?
Abernathy: Yes, it does. It really and truly does. You’re going to have to find a way to move through it. I know that when the previous president was elected to office, I found myself crying for three days straight, and it unearthed all of my fear and anxiety that I had — unresolved anxiety from the civil rights movement. I literally had to work with myself, and I think that that’s what happened. That’s why all of those women took to the streets and marched in the Women’s March that happened right after that — because they needed to work their way through it.
Then people continued to, young people, to further work through it when they took to the streets with the Black Lives Matter movement — and also, when the young people took to the streets across America, demanding common sense gun control legislation. That’s how you work through it. However you do it, you work through it. You have to, if you expect to heal.
Biancolli: There’s a patient’s rights movement, an effort to reform the mental health system and validate, give voice, to the people who are too often marginalized. Are there lessons to be learned from the civil rights movement?
Abernathy: The civil rights movement, it was rooted in love. So, the first thing a patient needs to do is to love themselves. However imperfect they think they are, we are all imperfect. And to love the person that you are — however you are — and to know that you are okay the way that you are. Then, to embrace yourself. Then, to try and work within the frame of society — and if it is unjust and unfair, then you must speak out against what is unfair and unjust. So that your needs are addressed, and your needs are taken care of. So that you feel heard and validated.
Recently, my husband and I watched this movie, The Fisher King, and Robin Williams’ character was helping others — and in helping others, he helped himself. I think that’s what we have to do as human beings, one to another. I know that it’s disappointing when people call me names or are bigoted towards me, but I have to find a way to show compassion to them, and to show love to them — and to help them. In doing so, I think that I can change their lives and improve the quality of their lives.
George Wallace was the governor of Alabama who was a staunch segregationist who said, “Segregation now, segregation today, segregation forever.” Anyway, at the end of his life, he was shot and paralyzed, and was in a wheelchair. He called and asked my father to come see him, and I said, “Don’t go see George Wallace.” My father said, “He’s called for me. I’m going to go see him. It’s probably one of the most important things I could do.” And when my dad went to see him, George Wallace told him that the best friend he had in the world was this Black man who was taking care of him, who was showing love for him — when all George Wallace had given all of these years, for decades, was racial hatred.
And then the beautiful thing is that I would be reconnected via John Lewis, Congressman John Lewis, with Peggy Wallace Kennedy, who was George Wallace’s youngest daughter — who had come and spoken and asked for forgiveness for her father.
As I listened to Peggy speak, all I could do was remember the trauma and the fear that I had experienced going to bed every single night — and I just started bawling. I cried uncontrollably, and then at the end of her speech, I went up to her and I hugged her. And we have become dear friends, because I can’t move forward, and she can’t move forward, in a place of hate. We had to find a commonality. We had to find a love, and at the root of everything is forgiveness.
So, that’s what I’m asking America to do right now — and that’s what Uncle Martin was asking — is creative, redemptive goodwill at work in the human heart. That’s what we need.
And we’ve got to find forgiveness. And then we’ve got to be able to sit down and listen to each other, and lock eyes and hold hands, and let the love work through us so that we can create a better world and a better society, and better human relations, and a better psyche within the brains and the hearts and minds of every individual here in America, and across the world.
Biancolli: Is that how healing can happen?
Abernathy: That’s how healing, I believe, happens. At least that’s how it happened for me.
Biancolli: Finally, what do you want people to remember about King’s message? What should we take away from his words and his life?
Abernathy: That one day, we would all come together like he said at the end of the march in Washington. Black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics will all join hands and sing in the words of an old negro spiritual, “Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty, we’re free at last.”
His message was that to bring us all together, race and religion — and to love each other, to sit down together. And that we must have freedom ring from every mountainside. That’s what I want people to remember.
Biancolli: Donzaleigh Abernathy, thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts and memories today. I so appreciate it.
Abernathy: Thank you, Amy. It’s a pleasure to be here, and it’s an honor — and I hope, if I can just help one person to feel better, then that’s all that matters.