FACEism: A glimpse at the personal side of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

David Ono Image
Wednesday, January 18, 2023
A glimpse at personal side of Martin Luther King Jr., or Uncle Martin
In this FACEism episode, we get a glimpse at the very personal side of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.

He is one of the most important Americans to ever live. He moved this country to change with speeches so powerful, they still inspire us, generations later. But he didn't do it alone. In this story, part of our FACEism series, a glimpse at the very personal side of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. We call this episode Uncle Martin.

Donzaleigh Abernathy is a successful actress and author. She's also the daughter of activist Ralph Abernathy, credited with being the architect of the civil rights movement.

She talked to us about her father's work and the incredible life he led with a man Donzaleigh knew as Uncle Martin.

"I'm just in awe of the fact that Daddy did what he did, that Uncle Martin did what he did and that we are free," Donzaleigh Abernathy said. "Daddy was the planner and he was the strategist behind what happened, and Uncle Martin was the voice."

When Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white person on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus, Abernathy and a handful of others with the local NAACP sprang into action. This was the beginning of what would become the civil rights movement.

Ralph Abernathy then called a dynamic young pastor, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"He said, 'I need you to join me,'" Donzaleigh recalls. "I'm going to pick you up and I'm going to make you come with me to these meetings. That's how Uncle Martin got involved."

Throughout the next decade, Abernathy and King would become the closest of friends.

While King drew all the attention, Abernathy was there every step of the way. They protested together, convincing people that with courage, change would come.

"Daddy went to jail 44 times. Uncle Martin went to jail 19 times. I know that they were always arrested because of their non-violent protests," Abernathy said.

Imagine Donzaleigh's remarkable childhood, not only witnessing these giants at work, but actually marching with them hand in hand.

"The Selma to Montgomery march, I remember walking on that front line. We would sing together, we were all fighting for the right to vote. I remember once we got there, the stars had arrived," she said.

Her vivid memories come flooding back. Some of the most famous people in the world joined the fight. Tony Bennett, Bob Dylan, and the man she called Uncle Sammy - that would be Sammy Davis Jr.

"Uncle Sammy, when he arrived on stage before he began singing, he came over and gave my sister and I a kiss. I loved it," she said.

Celebrities delivered massive attention and energy. More importantly, they delivered badly needed money.

"They were giving them money so that the young people could pay the bail to get them out of jail. That's where the money was going," Abernathy said.

In 1963, Birmingham was one of the most racially divided cities in America. When protesters hit the streets, the Birmingham Police department met them with fire hoses and attack dogs.

Passive protesters met with pure violence. Most of them were students.

"Over a thousand young people were arrested, more than that. So the civil rights movement, we didn't have enough money to pay for the bail for all these young people. But these movie stars gave that money", Abernathy said.

Some of the most beautiful memories Donzaleigh has from those times happened in her own living room. She paints a deeply personal picture of how the King and the Abernathy families would gather every week.

"They would come to the house every Sunday evening and re-preach their sermons to each other, as mother was getting food together or whatever. But they'd talk about what they preached that day and then perform it for each other," she said.

Imagine, these two great leaders practicing their craft as the children listened.

"I knew when Uncle Martin ... there's something that he would hit, where it would come from the heart. It would emanate from his heart," Donzaleigh said.

That is exactly what happened during the march on Washington when Dr. King, during his most famous speech, stopped looking down at his notes and simply let his heart take over, sharing his dream.

King delivered his now famous "I have a dream" speech, where he said, "My four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream."

"It would put goosebumps on you," Donzaleigh said. "There was something magical about the voice. It was great because it would uplift the people."

The march on Washington was one of the largest protests in American history, hundreds of thousands with the same dream.

"I had never seen so many people before in my life. They were all colors," Abernathy recounts. "We had to hold on as we wove through to get up to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial."

It was from those steps, she watched as her "Uncle Martin" delivered those words that move us to this day. She even knows the inspiration for the speech's powerful conclusion.

"My dad, in 1959, had written in his 'Friends of Freedom' fundraising letter: 'Put your shoulders to the wheel and let us push until freedom rings from every mountainside, even Southern Mountainsides.' Four years later, in 1963, Uncle Martin would take those same words and make the 'I have a dream' speech but he elaborated on it," she said.

Not far from where King made that incredible speech, a monument now stands in his honor. In fact, there are many across the country. Yet there is little mention of Ralph Abernathy. To Donzaleigh, that doesn't matter.

"There are no great monuments for my father," she said, "but the greatest monument is that we are free."

Ralph Abernathy passed away in 1990 at the age of 64.

Donzaleigh told me, "There is no amount of fame that could ever equal one second of my time with him. He is my hero."

On his tomb in Atlanta, Georgia, are just two words, "I tried."