Abernathy, widow of the Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, a close friend of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who died in 1990, was the keynote speaker before nearly 200 guests at Rowan's annual Rosa Parks Luncheon.
The luncheon, in its ninth year, benefits the Gary Hunter Memorial Scholarship, named after a faculty member who died in 2005. Hunter helped establish the African American studies program.
A photo of Parks projected on two screens behind the lectern as school leaders and guests paid tribute to the civil rights struggle.
A student group, Atomik Legacy, offered a variety of dance styles in a performance that incorporated a recorded spoken-word piece criticizing a lack of diversity in higher education.
Group cofounder Calvin Martin, a 24-year-old Rowan student, said the purpose was to underscore his belief that universities need to breed diversity, not just market it.
"We don't take the time to sit down and understand," he said. "You can't just force diversity down people's throats."
Rowan's College of Education dean, Monika Williams-Shealey, the luncheon's host, followed the performance by saying the school was working to ensure access and equity.
"I'm here at Rowan because I believe in the vision," said Williams-Shealey, the university's first black female dean. "We're hoping that all of you take lessons certainly of the past, moving forward."
Abernathy, who declined to share her age, expressed a sense of urgency: "We can celebrate the past, but we have a present to deal with."
She urged young people to spur positive change in their communities. "If you are not aware of your history, you may be doomed to repeat it," she said.
Her speech focused largely on faces often overlooked in the civil rights movement - namely young people and women like Mary Louise Smith and Claudette Colvin, who refused to get up from their bus seats even before Parks' storied act and the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott.
Abernathy, who now lives in Atlanta, said she and her husband found faith to continue their work despite daily threats. The couple's home was bombed in 1957 as she cared for the couple's oldest child, Juandalynn, now a concert singer. "It was time, and if not us, who?" she asked. "If not then, when?"
The message was a familiar one for Jordan Porch, a Rowan freshman and Abernathy's great-nephew. Porch said his family hosts a reunion every summer - last year, in Ohio. "They never let us forget the impact that my family had in the civil rights movement," the 18-year-old said.
Abernathy's son Kwame said many do not entirely grasp how much his parents sacrificed.
"So many people in here may have never heard of any of these names," said Abernathy, 42, also of Atlanta. "And it's important."
"They literally did it with their hands," he added, raising his hands. "The alarm rang - and they answered."
As guests approached his mother seated at the first table, he said proudly: "It's my pleasure to share her with the world."