Feb. 6 2013 12:00 AM

Daughter of civil rights icons: 'We have a moral obligation to help others'


“Slavery to Freedom: An American Odyssey” is an annual lecture series commemorating Black History Month. Three different speakers will be featured who have become icons of the African-American struggle for civil rights.

Donzaleigh Abernathy, 55, is a playwright and actress, appearing in shows such as “The Walking Dead” and “Shameless.” She is also the daughter of the late Rev. Ralph Abernathy, a prominent leader of the Civil Rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest confidante. 

What was your childhood like?

We had to participate in my father´s work, I remember this vividly. He wanted to make sure we understood what was happening. We walked on the frontlines of every single major civil rights march. When my Mom asked us if we wanted to go (to an integrated school), I was the first to raise my hand. We had three white ministers live in my home. If our home could be integrated, why not our schools? Our churches? 

When I was little, we only used to see my father on the weekends, and every time we had to say goodbye on Monday, he would tell us that he might not come back. He wanted us to be prepared. He knew his work was dangerous and that he could get arrested, go to jail or worse. 

But he wanted to make sure our life was happy. Weekends were a big playtime for us. He’d wake us up early on Saturday, make breakfast for us, and on Sunday we went to church. We met (the Kings) every Sunday for dinner together. My sister was best friends with Yolanda (King) and my brother was best friends with Dexter (Scott King). 

Is Black History Month still relevant in the 21st century? 

It is most definitely essential — I just wish it wasn’t the shortest month. I’m a young woman, but I remember not being able to go into a dressing room at the department store and having to use a black water foundation. I remember before I could go into certain restaurants. 

Black people don’t know enough about their own history. We need to learn from our Jewish brothers and sisters who recount their suffering so that they never have to go through that again. A lot of black people take their freedom and liberties for granted. They’re standing on the shoulders of people who didn’t get to enjoy that freedom. We have a moral obligation to help others, to make sure that we will never endure that suffering ever again. We need to go forward with a clear understanding of our path and of the suffering that other people endured for us. 

Do you think your father and Dr. King would be happy with the state of race relations in 2013? 

They would be ecstatic that President Obama was elected. They would also be pleased with the number of black people, Jewish people, Asians and women represented in public office. But I think they’d be frustrated that discrimination with housing is still a concern. That struggle is still ongoing.

My father’s main concern was giving young African-Americans hope. When you see violence with African-Americans, you ask why. He wanted to address those issues. He wanted to reach out to disenfranchised, to help them find their voices. 

Are there any marginalized groups today that draw your attention? 

Sadly, there’s still this hatred for minorities who are becoming the majority of this country. The presidential election ignited that conversation again. You can change laws and affect equality on a certain level, but teaching people to love one another — the court can’t dictate that. 

Discrimination against gay people is wrong. I did an advertisement for gay marriage in Maryland, and I hope it helped because it passed. We shouldn’t let (the LGBT community) be alone in their fight. The Civil Rights movement had whites, Jews, everyone helping us; now we have an obligation to help other groups. 

The people who speak out the loudest (against equal rights) are usually the people trying to hide who they really are. That’s what my parents taught us. 

“Slavery to Freedom: An American Odyssey”
Featuring Donzaleigh Abernathy
Feb. 7
5 p.m.
Big Ten A, Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center