Xernona Clayton: the civil rights legend who befriended a KKK chief – and adjusted his thoughts | Society

The words of Xernona Clayton’s friend and mentor Martin Luther King Jr still ring in her ears, she says, not least his dictum that “if you can change a man’s heart, you can regulate his behaviour”.

One incident illustrates how successful this philosophy can be. It was 1968 and Clayton was in Atlanta, Georgia, leading the Model Cities Program, a federal initiative to help reduce urban poverty. Also on the programme was a man named Calvin Craig, who was the Georgia “grand dragon” of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). At this time, the KKK was still a prominent entity, openly engaged in cross-burnings, racist violence and intimidation, such as protesting outside white-owned restaurants in their robes to discourage Black people from entering.

“I was thinking: if I do battle with him, we’re not going to get anywhere,” Clayton recalls from her home in Atlanta. “I hoped that he would change his negative attitude.” At the first meeting, Craig refused to sit next to Black members and would barely shake Clayton’s hand.

Over the course of the next few months, however, he began to drop by Clayton’s office to talk. She was always civil and courteous with him. She taught him to say “negro” instead of the racist slur “nigra”. She told him she had many white friends, who often came to dinner. He would present her with pro-segregation arguments, such as a statistic that more Black people owned their homes in Mississippi than in the “free north”. Clayton would politely counter that less visible forms of segregation existed in the north, such as low wages and high property prices, and that Black people across the US had been disadvantaged.

Clayton also appealed to Craig’s Christianity, invoking the Bible’s messages of love, charity and “the brotherhood of man”. “I would say: ‘You go to church so many times during the week, and you got the kind of ideas you have?’ That’s the way our talk would go. Every day, he would come. And he would laugh, laugh, laugh and I would challenge him. I liked him.”

One Saturday, Clayton returned home to find dozens of cars outside her house: police cars, television cameras, reporters. “It turned out that they were looking for me,” she says. “Because Calvin Craig had held a press conference earlier announcing that he was coming out of the Klan, denouncing the Klan, and he credited a Black woman with changing his negative attitudes. And I was that Black woman.”

Clayton turned 90 in August, although you would never guess it from her appearance or her energy, which suggest a woman several decades younger. With her trademark upswept hair and headband, she cuts a glamorous figure. Throughout her eventful life, Clayton seems to have called out things she disagreed with and ended up changing them, but not necessarily in a combative way. For Clayton, like King, the battle was not against white people; it was against racism, bigotry, segregation, mistrust and misunderstanding. Peaceful integration was the goal. “We’ve got to come together as a people,” she says. “I’ve practised that all my life. All my life.”

Clayton with Senator Ted Kennedy (centre) and Martin Luther King Jr (right) in Jackson Mississippi, in 1966. Photograph: Courtesy of Xernona Clayton

Clayton was never afraid of white people, she says. She came into regular contact with them as a child, despite growing up in the Jim Crow south: Muskogee, Oklahoma. Her father was a Baptist minister, and she was one of seven children, including her identical twin sister, Xenobia. “My mother was a disciplinarian and my dad gave us the lectures, so it was a good balance.”

Clayton’s father was well respected by Black and white communities. He and Clayton’s mother (who was one-quarter Cherokee) also dealt with Native American affairs: “We saw Native Americans and we saw white people coming into our home all the time.” Segregation was a fact of life, but her father’s position in the church acted as a buffer to its uglier aspects. “You had Black neighbourhoods and you went to your Black church and your Black school. It was separate. But as youngsters, you’re not asking the questions. You’re just following the rules.”

Clayton soon learned to challenge those rules. As a university student in Nashville, Tennessee, she and a group of friends were threatened with a knife by the owner of a hamburger joint at which they tried to eat one night. “He said: ‘You know you niggers don’t belong in here. So get out or else I’ll cut all your heads off.’ And he looked like he meant it. We’d read about slavery. We were knowledgable about segregation. We knew about discrimination, but it hadn’t happened personally. So that was a revelation. I felt the embarrassment of being sheltered.”

Clayton’s first job after university, in 1954, was working “undercover” with the National Urban League (NUL) in Chicago, Illinois, helping expose discrimination in the city’s department stores. She would respond to the store’s job adverts by telephone and be told that the vacancy was still open. Then she would turn up in person 10 minutes later and be told the vacancy had been filled. After experiencing this time and time again, she led an NUL campaign against it. “As a result of my insistence and my direction, we got those stores to practise equal opportunity,” she says. “And that feels so good. And when you have a success, you will try it again and again and again.”

Clayton’s life took a fateful turn in 1957, when she met Ed Clayton, a renowned journalist and an editor at Ebony and Jet, the leading African American publications of the era. Ed proposed that she and Xenobia pose in bikinis for Ebony (they refused, but they did pose clothed), but she and Ed became close and later married. They lived in Los Angeles, where Ed’s work brought them into contact with many Black celebrities of the era – dinner guests included Diahann Carroll, Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington. His media acumen also brought him to the attention of King.

Clayton had been aware of King for some time, thanks to southern Baptist conventions, at which he was already a rising star. By the late 50s, King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was growing in prominence and needed a media relations person. All roads led to Ed.

Clayton speaking at the funeral of John Lewis in 2020. She helped to organise the 1963 March on Washington alongside Lewis.Clayton speaking at the funeral of John Lewis last year. She helped to organise the 1963 March on Washington alongside Lewis. Photograph: Getty Images

King invited the Claytons to Atlanta to stay with him and his wife, Coretta. Ed was, of course, persuaded. “You don’t say no to Dr King,” she says. Meanwhile, Coretta asked Clayton to help organise a fundraising singing tour for her. They spent 10 days on the road and got along well. “Dr King wanted Ed to come to work for him. Coretta wanted me to come and be with her. That put the squeeze on both of us together.” Clayton jokes that King tricked her into moving to Atlanta: “One night, he called me, and the phone call was more than two hours. And he ended up promising me that if I would just agree to come he’d give me a new house, a dog, a car, a housekeeper. Once I got there, I got none of that! He never gave me anything. But it was the best move I ever made.”

The Claytons formed close bonds with the Kings, professional and personal. They helped organise the 1963 March on Washington (Ed helped draft King’s “I Have a Dream” speech), although Clayton did not go on the civil rights marches. She told King she needed to be on the outside to bail him out when he got thrown in jail.

Alongside the SCLC’s work, Clayton led her own campaigns, including one to desegregate Atlanta’s hospitals. Incredibly, in 1966, pregnant Black women could visit public hospitals only on certain days of the week. Black doctors were allowed to practise only in certain hospitals. Through a combination of activism and diplomacy, Clayton brought the issue to the attention of not only the local medical association but also Lyndon Johnson’s White House, achieving integration in hospitals in Georgia and across the south.

She also became a confidante to King during bleaker times. King’s public denunciation of the Vietnam war in 1967 cost him a great deal of support. “His world changed,” she says. “His friends left him. The money dried up. And he was so disappointed. So disappointed.” Clayton’s husband had also died the year before. King became a frequent visitor to her home. “I said to him: ‘Now listen: you got to measure your visits to my house because you’ve been alleged in the papers as a womaniser. And we’re not here for fun and games.” Nothing like that ever happened, she says. “We had anything but fun. He would just bare his soul to me. And I’m walking around today with some of his secrets. Because some things he didn’t want known about him: how disappointed he was that the world just turned against him. I always say now that the man died from a broken heart.”

Clayton drove King to the airport to catch the flight to Memphis the day before his assassination. When she heard about his death, she didn’t believe it, until she tried to telephone Coretta and the line was busy. In the immediate aftermath of King’s death, she was in the house with Coretta and the family, answering phones, offering practical and emotional support. She was with Coretta when she went into her sons’ bedroom to tell them that their father would not be coming back: “I almost had a bruised arm because she was holding me so tightly.”

We’ve got to come together as a people. I’ve practised that all my life. All my life

Clayton went to a department store to pick some funeral outfits for Coretta. She didn’t have any money, but told the store she would settle the bill later. Upon her return to the Kings’ house, she ran into two of King’s close friends: Stan Levinson, the Jewish activist, and the actor Harry Belafonte. Both men gave her their credit cards and offered to pay for the clothes. When she went back to the store the next day, however, the store owner told her the outstanding balance was zero. “He said: ‘Listen, I’m a white man in America. And I have to take some of the responsibility for the environment that made this dastardly act occur in the first place,’” says Clayton.

By the late 60s, Clayton had found another area to shake up: television. As usual, it came about because she spoke up. Drafted in at the last minute to speak to a group of Atlanta journalists, she aired her views about how the television industry was white-dominated, from the reporters and cameramen (and they were always men) to the editors and presenters. Even as they reported on discrimination, they were themselves discriminatory. As a result, one station, the CBS affiliate Channel 5, asked Clayton to host a live talkshow five days a week. She became the first Black television presenter in the south.

Clayton’s extensive contacts helped bring in some prestigious guests, including Belafonte, Mahalia Jackson, Sidney Poitier, Jesse Owens, Lucille Ball and Lena Horne. The show also featured local community figures, ordinary people and children. She pitched the show at a multicultural audience, inviting white guests as well as Black ones and offering white viewers a window into facets of African American life they had never seen, such as home cooking. She also demanded the camera operators faithfully represent the skin colour of her Black guests, which mainstream television routinely failed to do.

The Xernona Clayton Show ran until 1975, after which she began working for a local TV station owned by Ted Turner, who would later establish CNN. She became friends with Turner and took on greater responsibilities, ultimately becoming vice-president for urban affairs for Turner Broadcasting (in practical terms, this meant liaising with civic and minority groups and working on special projects). In 1993, she and Turner founded the Trumpet awards, which recognise African American accomplishment.

Ted Turner, Xernona Clayton and Coretta Scott King at a Trumpet awards gala in 1994Ted Turner, Xernona Clayton and Coretta Scott King at a Trumpet awards gala in 1994. Photograph: Library of Congress

Clayton retired in 1997, but is still active on numerous committees and boards and in the media. Everyone still wants a piece of her, it seems. “People treat me like I’m 50 instead of 90,” she says, only half-complaining. “I have a lot of energy and a lot of things I want to do. I enjoy the exchanges I have with people, I enjoy the goals I set for myself, I enjoy the things that are going on around me.”

There is still work to be done – not least in Georgia, where the Republican-controlled legislature recently passed sweeping voting restrictions that threaten to roll back the advances for which Clayton’s generation fought so hard. “We’ve taken a giant step backwards,” she says.

We are speaking just after the conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd – the event that triggered last year’s Black Lives Matter protests. The verdict was a fair one, she says: “You won’t probably find anybody who would agree with such a dastardly act.” In Clayton’s childhood, despite well-known links between law enforcement and the KKK in the south, they still thought of police officers as “Officer Friendly”, she says. “That’s what they taught you in grammar school. You know, ‘This is a nice man, he wears a badge because he wants to protect you’. And then it changed … We don’t have friends now. The badges and the uniforms and the cars, they’re all our enemies, because they’re acting like it and they are proving it with their behaviour. These used to be our friends and now they’re perpetrators of evil.”

Clayton was initially critical of the Black Lives Matter movement on account of its lack of organisation. “Martin Luther King never did anything without a plan,” she says. “But I see now that these young people have vision, they have energy, they have the analytical wherewithal to see that we have not solved these problems of racism, prejudice and bigotry – and certainly not equity. And so they’re doing it their way and getting some results. I’m on their side now.”

Does she have any advice for younger generations? “I just tell everybody: do what you can, wherever you are. I can’t solve the problems of the world, but I can tell you that if everybody does what they can, our problems will be solved.”

Clayton still lives by that philosophy. “I read the Bible, which says none of us know the day nor the hour when we will leave this earth. So what I do is take each day as it comes. I’ll wake up in the morning, think: ‘Looks like this is a good day to do something good,’ and do it. I know I’m here now. And I think and hope I’ll be here tomorrow. I’ll wait and see. But I plan as if I were gonna be here.”

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