Author, actress and activist Donzaleigh Abernathy’s latest project is inspired by her godfather Martin Luther King Jr. She’s the lead singer on “The Listening,” a choral project that’s a nod to Dr. King’s 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech. “My father (Rev. Ralph Abernathy) was with Uncle Martin that day at Riverside Church (in New York),” said Abernathy, who is based out of California. “After serving during World War II where all of the men in his company had been killed, except my father and another soldier named Benny, my father decided to dedicate his life to nonviolence.”
Q: What are some of your memories of Dr. King?
A: I will always cherish Uncle Martin’s laughter and love. He used to let us crawl up on his lap and hug and kiss him. I remember living in their home when my parents went around the world on a peace mission and him sitting at the head of the table for breakfast and dinner. I can still see him walking down the hallway in their home carrying his briefcase. Like my father, he was incredibly gentle and always loving. The world outside our homes was dangerous for them, so they made an extra special effort to make the time that we shared with them at home special. Uncle Martin and my father never yelled at us. Never. They always spoke kindly to us as children when they needed to explain something.
Q: Can you share some of your memories traveling together?
A: When I was young, we spent our family vacations together, so we traveled to the New York World’s Fair and to Los Angeles for our summer vacation. At the world’s fair, I believe he was recognized. When we flew, my parents and Uncle Martin and Aunt Coretta would take separate airplanes in case there was an accident, so that one parent would always survive to take care of the family. After our Sunday dinner together, we would go to the airport to see my father and Uncle Martin off. They were bombarded by members of the press. Black and white people would walk up to them to say, “Thank you for speaking out against racial injustice.” Of course, there were also incidents of insults, which I personally witnessed and experienced when we went to march for fair housing and integrated neighborhoods in Chicago.
Q: How did segregation affect your travels?
A: I remember taking the segregated train in one of my best Sunday dresses with my sister and our father from Montgomery to Atlanta to see our best friend, Yolanda King, who had moved with her parents to Atlanta. I remember the train ride, the dirty “colored only” bathroom and Uncle Martin and Yolanda picking us up at the beautiful old train station in Atlanta, which has been torn down.
Q: This pandemic has made everyone think differently about how we spend our free time. How have you been handling it?
A: Most of my closest friends are doctors who have been on the front line of this pandemic, so I heard about the dangers from day one. I have been wearing two masks, gloves and always hand sanitizing after touching anything since (the beginning). I have not traveled. My husband and I have stayed home, but we enjoy long, socially distant walks every day with our dog. We take different routes usually to entertain ourselves and to get a good workout. But our dog is little, so most days after several miles, he has to be carried, which adds to our exercise.
Q: If you had travel plans for 2020 and had to cancel, where were they to?
A: I had several speaking engagements that were canceled. I was expected to speak in New York and Alabama and to attend events in Georgia and Germany.
Q: What untapped destination should people know about?
A: Visiting our national parks. America is gorgeous! I have visited almost every state in America, except for Hawaii, Alaska, Oklahoma, Montana and North Dakota. As soon as we can travel, we want to go to see America again.
Q: What's the most important thing you've learned from your travels?
A: That one must travel and see the world! I regret that I haven’t traveled more. I look back and regret the travel journeys that I missed. I would love to travel again soon. My passport is always up to date. Life has taught me to always be ready to go.
Q: If you've ever gone away for the holidays, which was the best trip?
A: The best Christmas vacations were going as a family every year to Germany to visit my sister, day trips to Zurich, then taking the train and also driving to Paris to spend New Year’s Eve and a week in Paris! My parents gave us that family trip every year so that we could all be together as a family with my sister in Germany and experience different cultures.
Q: Do you speak any foreign languages?
A: I learned to speak conversational French during my high school foreign exchange program in France. I learned German from my annual visits there and listening to my sister and her family speak. I learned a little Italian while living with Italian housemates. I used to pick up languages easily, but don’t anymore.
Q: What are your five favorite cities?
A: Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Paris and Rome.
Q: Where would you like to go that you have never been to before?
A: I want to go to Hawaii, New Zealand, explore all of Africa and to visit China, India, Japan, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.
Q: When you go away, what are some of your must-have items?
A: I must have comfortable walking shoes, a pair of heels, a black cocktail dress, a beautiful white dress, a white shirt, a fitted blazer and comfortable pants.
Q: What is your guilty pleasure when you're on the road?
A: Visiting cathedrals in every city or town, buying lots of flowers and local art to decorate my hotel rooms and always going sightseeing as a tourist.