Atlanta civil rights activist Xernona Clayton is still 'fearless' at 91

Xernona Clayton, a key aide to Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King who helped sustain the civil rights movement in the 1960s, is interviewed in her offices at the Trumpet Foundation in Atlanta, on May 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Sharon Johnson)

A key aide to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who helped sustain the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s says she’s deeply saddened by the hate crimes seeking to terrorize people across America.

But Xernona Clayton has been working for racial harmony since the movement began, and refuses to accept mass killings as routine.

“We’re having too many racial conflicts,” Clayton, 91, told The Associated Press during an interview in her office in Atlanta. “It’s so idiotic that we’ve had that racism in the first place. Because none of us had any say-so about how we got here.”

“My mind always goes back to what Martin Luther King would have said,” she said. “He always said, ‘You know, we CAN love each other.’ He said, ‘There’s just no reason why we can’t.’ And it was hard for him to understand why we don’t.”

King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, recruited Clayton and her first husband, Jet magazine editor Edward Clayton, to bring more money and attention to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an Atlanta-based civil rights organization whose first president was King. Already enlisting movie stars to host SCLC fundraisers, Xernona Clayton was reluctant to leave Southern California.

But the two women bonded as Clayton organized Ms. King’s national singing tour. Soon, she was securing care for bloodied protesters and calling her friends Sidney (Poitier), Harry (Belafonte) and Bill (Cosby) for bail money.

In 1966, Clayton learned that Atlanta’s Black doctors were restricted to one facility, Grady Hospital, and to just one day a week. “Wednesday was the day Black people would have their babies,” she recalled. “So I organized the doctors and told them, ‘We can do something about this.'”

She found a government ally who shared how much federal money was flowing to Atlanta’s segregated hospitals and took the doctors to Washington, scoring a White House visit. President Lyndon Baines Johnson had quietly encouraged such grassroots lobbying, and surprised her by insisting that hospitals nationwide had to desegregate before getting Medicare funding.

“I’m fearless, for the most part. You know, I’m not afraid to tackle an issue,” Clayton said. “I’ll fight for what is right.”

Xernona Clayton, a key aide to Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King who helped sustain the civil rights movement in the 1960s, is interviewed in her offices at the Trumpet Foundation in Atlanta, on June 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Michael Warren)

In an era when national news organizations — including the AP — covered civil rights with all-white staffs, her friend Ralph McGill, publisher of the Atlanta Constitution, had her speak to a television industry convention. She took them to task for their hiring. Atlanta’s CBS affiliate WAGA responded in 1967 by making her the first Black talk show host in the South.

While King’s assassination only months later convulsed the nation, Clayton and her guests provided audiences with a model for racial harmony. She even persuaded a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan to renounce the white terror organization. They too became friends.

Barbara Walters recruited her for a network role, but Ted Turner hired her instead to set a tone of inclusiveness at Turner Broadcasting Service, which launched CNN. She served for years as Turner’s corporate vice president for urban affairs.

Clayton also started the Trumpet Foundation to celebrate African American achievers, and still works there amid mementos from a lifetime of activism when she’s not with her second husband, Paul L. Brady, the nation’s first Black federal administrative law judge. Her first husband died in 1966.

Clayton got her start as an “undercover agent” for the Chicago Urban League in the early 1950s, arranging job interviews only to be turned down when they saw her skin color. Confronted with proof of racism, Marshall Fields hired its first Black store employees.

“There’s something about a victory — winning is fun,” she recalled. “It gave me the assurance that I can make a change. And I still have that today, that I can make change. I CAN make change. I’ve MADE change.”

Born on Aug. 30, 1930, with her twin sister Xenobia, she was raised in segregated Muskogee, Oklahoma. Their father was a minister and Indian Affairs agent, so respected that the white police chief and mayor often came calling for guidance about the Black and Native American communities.

“He was a soft-spoken man, but softly he could make a change in a person’s life. And he did it to the authority: the police, the mayor, whatever. I often wonder if maybe I had some of that in my blood.”

She felt racism’s sting at what would become Tennessee State University, where she and her friends went for hamburgers one night in 1950.

“This guy was standing at the counter, he had a butcher knife, probably 3 feet long. I’d never seen a knife that big. But he said to us as we entered the door, ‘If you n——— don’t get out of here, I’ll cut your heads off! You know you don’t belong here!’ Scared us to death,” she recalled.

“It had a sign outside that says ‘hamburgers for sale,’ and ‘you don’t belong here?'” she said. “I still feel the pain, the embarrassment, the ridicule. I still feel it.”

Clayton earned a master’s in education at the University of Chicago, where marrying the editor of Jet put her at the center of Black culture and politics. She was by Edward Clayton’s side when he heard that the mother of Emmett Till, lynched in Mississippi, wanted the world to see his brutalized body. He stopped the presses to put the image on the cover, shocking the nation’s conscience and drawing widespread support for civil rights.

The couple then moved to Los Angeles, where Clayton said she did something “monumental.” Volunteering to take on 100 school dropouts, she discovered some just needed new clothes or hair curlers to return to class. Others were committing crimes, so she talked her way into gang meetings and urged them to study instead for corporate careers.

“And guess what? To this day, my pride and my chest stand big. Because I took 100 kids and got 82 of them back in school.”

It became her motto: “One person can make a difference. So don’t run away if you see a problem. See if there’s a way you can help,” she said. “I tell people all the time today, look around — there’s something you can do.”