As a civil rights activist, Xernona Clayton helped force the desegregation of all hospital facilities in Atlanta, worked side by side with Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King Jr., helped organize the March on Washington among other activities before becoming the first Black TV presenter in the south.
But perhaps her most remarkable achievement was her influence on Calvin Craig, a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. Craig, an Atlanta heavy-equipment operator, was a KKK leader who strongly advocated for racial segregation. In 1968, Clayton met Craig while in Atlanta, Georgia. They were both involved in the Model Cities program, a federal initiative to help reduce urban poverty. Around this time, the KKK had become notorious for their rallies, cross-burnings, and racist violence.
“I was thinking: if I do battle with him, we’re not going to get anywhere,” Clayton recalled from her home in Atlanta during an interview with the Guardian recently. “I hoped that he would change his negative attitude.”
When they first met, Craig barely shook Clayton’s hand. He also did not want to sit next to Black members during their first meeting. But as he and Clayton debated daily about their opposing views on race and other matters, the two formed an unusual relationship.
Clayton told the Guardian she appealed to Craig’s Christianity. “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 in 1968, Clayton got back home to find scores of reporters, television cameras, and police cars outside her home. “It turned out that they were looking for me,” she recalled. “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.”
Craig’s resignation from the Klan shocked everyone at the time, more so because he converted because of Clayton, a Black woman.
Growing up in the Jim Crow south, Muskogee, Oklahoma, Clayton said she often came into contact with White people and was never afraid of them. One of seven children, her father was a Baptist minister, who was well respected by both Black and White people in the community. Clayton’s mother was one-quarter Cherokee, and so the family often had contacts with Native Americans as well: “We saw Native Americans and we saw white people coming into our home all the time.”
After being threatened one night by the owner of an eatery for being Black, Clayton, right after university in 1954, started working “undercover” with the National Urban League (NUL) in Chicago, Illinois, to bring to light discrimination in the city’s department stores.
And after her marriage to Ed Clayton, a renowned journalist and an editor at Ebony and Jet in 1957, she was able to meet civil rights icon King and his wife Coretta. Clayton’s husband Ed had then become the media relations person for King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The Claytons soon became close to the Kings while working with them, including helping them organize the 1963 March on Washington.
Clayton herself began her own campaigns, including helping to bring about integration in hospitals in Georgia and across the south. At the time, pregnant Black women could visit public hospitals only on certain days of the week. Black doctors could not also practice in certain hospitals. Clayton helped reverse that thanks to her activism.
By the late 60s, Clayton had entered the field of television after speaking up about how white-dominated the industry was, from presenters, cameramen to the editors. One station, the CBS affiliate Channel 5, later asked Clayton to host a live talk show five days a week. This made Clayton the first Black television presenter in the south.
She hosted The Xernona Clayton Show until 1975, during which she brought in not only local community figures but some distinguished guests, including Belafonte, Jesse Owens, Lucille Ball, Mahalia Jackson, Sidney Poitier, and Lena Horne. After that show, she started working for a local TV station owned by Ted Turner, who would later set up CNN. Clayton and Turner became good friends. Eventually, Clayton became vice-president for urban affairs for Turner Broadcasting.
Then in 1993, the two founded the Trumpet Awards, which celebrates African-American achievement. Although Clayton retired in 1997, she still plays huge roles on various committees and boards and in the media. “People treat me like I’m 50 instead of 90,” she said. “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.”
Clayton has received numerous awards for her activism, including the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education’s Distinguished Leadership Award; the SCLC Drum Major for Justice Award; the National Association of Minorities in Cable’s Mickey Leland Award; and the State of Georgia Commission on Equal Opportunity’s Leadership and Dedication in Civil Rights Award.