Actress, daughter of Civil Rights icon to keynote Mississippi event

Published 6:15 am Friday, March 3, 2023

Donzaleigh Abernathy, an award-winning actress and writer, and the daughter of American Civil Rights Movement co-founder Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, will be the guest speaker for the 30th annual Armstrong-Branch Distinguished Lecture Tuesday, March 7 at 7 p.m. in the Thad Cochran Center Ballrooms on the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) Hattiesburg campus.

The USM Dean of Students Office is presenting this event, with support from other university entities. Admission to the program is free and open to the public. The Armstrong-Branch Lecture Series honors Gwendolyn Armstrong-Chamberlain and Raylawni Adams Branch, the first African American students at USM who integrated the university in 1965.

Abernathy’s father was a close confidant of Civil Rights Movement leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was Donzaleigh’s godfather. Her presentation at USM for the Armstrong-Branch Lecture Series will include a look back at the civil rights movement through her lens and vantage point as daughter and goddaughter of two of the most important individuals in the quest for racial equity and justice in America.

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“We’re honored to have Donzaleigh Abernathy as this year’s guest lecturer,” said Delores McNair, assistant dean of students at USM. “Like our honorees, Ms. Abernathy has worked to be a change agent for equal opportunity and access for all people. This is the 30th year of the lecture series to recognize the courageous actions of Gwendolyn Armstrong-Chamberlain and Raylawni Branch, and our guest speaker will share her experiences during the Civil Rights Movement that parallel with the lives and legacies of Armstrong-Chamberlain and Branch.”

Abernathy and her siblings were witness to and participated in all the major Civil Rights Movements and Marches, including the Freedom Riders, the March on Washington, the Selma to Montgomery March for “The Right to Vote” and the Chicago Housing Demonstrations.

The Abernathy and King children integrated Spring Street Elementary School, which led to mass integration of schools in the South in 1965. She also witnessed from her home the integral decisions that helped shape American laws with the creation of the Civil Rights Bill, the Public Accommodations Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, Affirmative Action, the National Food Stamp Program, the Free Meal Program for Low Income Students, and the creation of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday.

In her own right, Abernathy carries on the legacy of her father and godfather through her work as an actress and author, as well as through civil and human rights advocacy work. She authored Partners to History: Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph David Abernathy and the Civil Rights Movement, which was nominated as a “Best Book for Young Adults” by the American Library Association and was a contributing author to the Smithsonian Institute’s book In the Spirit of Martin. One of the leading actors in Gods and Generals, she also starred as the leading lady in the HBO film Don King: Only in America; and had acting roles in Miss Evers’ Boys and NBC’s The Tempest and Murder in Mississippi.

Abernathy is a founding Trustee of the New Visions Foundation/Coalition for Engaged Education and a former Vice President of the Board and New Roads Schools. She was a spokesperson for the CDC’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Program and for Amnesty International, and currently volunteers for Juveniles in the Los Angeles County Justice System.

For more information about this event, email or call 601.266.4025.