Reliving a nightmare

By By Ana Breton

By Ana Breton

It took Donzaleigh Abernathy more than 30 years to get over the fear of public bathrooms.

It was 1963 and the children’s day celebration at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was almost over.

Four girls between the ages of 11 and 13 stopped by the ladies’ bathroom in the church to redo their make-up. A teacher passed by the bathroom and told the girls to hurry up. Another little girl came inside and went into one of the stalls.

In an instant, the ladies’ room exploded and four girls were dead. The girl that had entered the stall last minute survived, but she would remain blind in one eye for the rest of her life.

Abernathy remembers the incident. She was there. Her father, Ralph David Abernathy, was one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest friends, or “Uncle Martin,” as she had always called him.

And although she was only five years old when the incident happened, the “over 40” Abernathy can narrate with complete details. She described the sight during a speech on Thursday in the Union Ballroom.

“We saw a little leather shoe among the rubble and then we found the bodies piled on top of each other,” she said. “The faces were so disrupted that they looked like grown women. One girl’s head had been decapitated – the only thing keeping her head and her body together was loose skin.”

She said she couldn’t go into public bathrooms years after it happened. When she was in kindergarten, she would “go on herself” during naptime to avoid going to the bathroom. Both her mother and the teacher knew about her fear and sent her to school with a change of clothes everyday.

“I was afraid that if I went to the bathroom a bomb would go off,” she said.

After she prayed that night after the accident, “the nightmare of the bombing began,” she wrote in Partners to History: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy and the Civil Rights Movement.

“It continued to recur for the next 30 years.”

A month before, King had given his well known “I have a dream” speech. But, because of her close association with the King family – she remembers her dad and “Uncle Martin” wearing the same suits so often they were called twins – her family still received threats from opposing groups.

She was afraid to sleep at night. Her family received death threats during dinner on a daily basis.

Now, Abernathy, who founded the New Road Schools, an organization that promotes cultural and economic diversity, speaks at universities across the United States about race, prejudice and being oppressed at the age of five.

“We hate each other because we fear each other, and we only fear each other because we don’t know each other,” she said. “Well, Uncle Martin taught us how to love.”

Derrick Brown, vice president of the Black Student Union, said because he had visited the 16th Street church before, Abernathy’s speech brought life into his memories.

“I think it’s great that we hear these stories from people that were actually there,” said Brown, a senior in computer science. “It just ties everything together.”

Nicole Batt, an undecided senior from Salt Lake Community College, was amazed by Abernathy’s account.

“I never thought I would hear the story from someone (who) lived through it,” Batt said. “I think it’s unbelievable what people do to each other.”

Lisa Teran

Actress Donzaleigh Abernathy discusses her book Partners To History with Dean of Students Stayner Landward in the Union Ballroom Thursday. Abernathy’s father, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, was a close friend and associate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Abernathy grew up in the middle of the civil rights movement and said that her goal in writing this book was to make historical events more accessible to students.