Photos courtesy of Jon Gramling

Donzaleigh Abernathy’s voice changes tone when she mentions her Uncle Martin. 

“I didn’t know him any other way,” she said of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “And, if I called him something else, he would say that I was rude and disrespectful and wouldn’t listen to me.” 

Abernathy is the daughter of Rev. Dr. Ralph David Abernathy and goddaughter of King.

“Everything happened at our house,” Abernathy recalled of her childhood home.

When Abernathy visited Madison as the keynote speaker for the 2023 Madison and Dane County MLK Day Observance, she shared a personal perspective on the civil rights movement and King from the eyes of a child who loved him. She was 11 when she attended King’s funeral.

 “When I kissed him, he was soft, but cold,” she remembered somberly. “He was gone.”

The consummate storyteller, Abernathy discussed the close relationship between her family and the King family using a mix of personal and professional photos. This relationship gave her a front-row seat to key moments in the civil rights fight, such as the march on Selma and the racially motivated bombings of several buildings in Montgomery, Alabama. One building was the Abernathy home. Her mother, then pregnant with Donzaleigh, narrowly escaped harm from the bombing. 

The risk that King and her father took on for the cause of civil rights touched their children. Rev. Abernathy aired on the news daily and were arrested many times. Leaders and politicians criticized them on television. And their children were watching and listening. 

The story that Abernathy tells about her father and godfather is one of brotherhood, family, and loyalty. The two activists were loyal friends; they treated each other as brothers. The two families were close and drew strength from each other. Juanita Abernathy and Coretta Scott King helped each other with the children and supported each other in both the joyous and the difficult times their families faced.

“[My mother] looked out for Aunt Coretta” until Mrs. King’s death in 2006, she said.  Abernathy did many things to continue the work toward civil rights, including establishing the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. 

The activism that has emerged among young people in recent years inspires Abernathy. She does not see the criticism that these young people receive as something new.

 “When Daddy and Uncle Martin were doing what they were doing,” she said, “[older Black activists] said they were moving too fast, and the young people were saying they were moving too slow. But the energy is with young people. Who do you think saved Wisconsin?” 

Despite any generational divide, Abernathy says that the spirit of her father and King were still present in the marches that she participated in. 

“I was proud to be among them because I felt the thing in my heart that I felt when I was out there with my dad and Uncle Martin, even if it doesn’t look the same,” she said. 

When asked how she would advise young activists, she said: “They should learn how to do it nonviolently, but that’s it. I think the future looks bright.” 

Now, Abernathy is an award-winning playwright, author and actress. She appeared recently as a principal guest star on 911 and will film a new episode of SWAT. Besides her busy acting career, Abernathy has dedicated herself to sharing the stories of her parents and godparents. As she closed her speech, she implored the audience not to forget that people died. “It doesn’t matter if you have to stand in lines for five or six hours to vote. Stand there.” 

The other highlight of the evening was the presentation of the Madison and Dane County Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian awards. Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway presented the city award to Dr. Charles “Chuck” Taylor, renowned author, educator, and activist. His latest contribution to the Madison community is the 2022 documentary Leaders of Madison’s Black Renaissance. He advised the audience that “when you combine faith with action, great things can happen.” 

Wayne Strong, the late community stalwart, received the Dane County Humanitarian Award. His widow, Terri Strong, accepted the award on his behalf. Strong’s endless contributions to the Madison and Dane County community included his professional work with the Madison Police Department and volunteer work as director of the Southside Raiders Youth Football and Cheerleader Program. Terri Strong accepted the award standing next to a photo of her smiling late husband. “Wayne was God’s handiwork,” she said.   

The MLK Community Choir, led by Leotha and Tamera Stanley, offered several soul-stirring selections throughout the program. Mrs. Stanley warmed up the waiting crowd with a freedom song sing-in in the Overture lobby before the program.