King family friend to speak at Stephens
Xernona Clayton was having dinner at a restaurant in Atlanta when the maître d' came to her table and handed her a note. “Did you hear about Dr. King?” it read. Clayton had just spoken to Martin Luther King Jr. a couple of hours prior, so she didn’t think anything about it. After all, she’d received false reports before. She was even with King and a group of his friends one time when news came on the television announcing he’d been assassinated. Then there was the false report saying he’d been killed in Chicago. The maître d' noticed Clayton hadn’t reacted to the note and returned with news that he’d been shot. It was April 4, 1968, and soon Clayton would find out this time, it was true.
A former television host and executive, civil rights leader and founder of the prestigious Trumpet Awards, Xernona Clayton will share her amazing stories with Stephens College students, faculty and alumnae on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Her keynote address, set for 3 p.m. Jan. 21 in the Kimball Ballroom, will cap a day long symposium during which participants will learn about beliefs, responsibility and leadership.
Clayton—who worked closely with King and his wife in the mid 1960s promoting Civil Rights—paints a surreal scene of the night of his death.
Unable to reach Coretta Scott King by phone to confirm the news, Clayton drove to the King’s Atlanta home. When she got there, Mrs. King asked her to watch the children so she could fly to Memphis to check on her husband’s condition—she’d return minutes later, having heard at the airport that it was too late.
Clayton remembers the night vividly: The rain that created static on the television and radio; the phone calls that came from well-wishers, including President Lyndon Johnson; the “death grip” Mrs. King had on Clayton’s arm as she tried to tell the children.
Two scenes are especially vivid.
The eldest, Yolanda King, had been out that night when the news first came. When she got home later, she rushed straight to her mother’s arms. “She sat on the bed and embraced Coretta and said, ‘We’re big girls, Mommy. Daddy would not want us to cry.’ Crocodile tears were running down their faces.”
Then there was the call from Sen. Robert Kennedy—who himself would be assassinated months later. Most callers had asked to let them know if Coretta needed anything: Kennedy figured out what she needed and made it happen. By the time he called, he’d arranged for an AT&T technician to install more telephone lines at her home; sent a personal plane to Atlanta to pick her up when she was ready to fly to Memphis to retrieve the body; and helped Clayton work with hotels in Atlanta making sure they held rooms for funeral guests. Clayton took over arrangements at the request of Coretta Scott King, helping her with everything from making hotel arrangements to selecting Mrs. King’s funeral attire.
It continued to rain on the day of the public viewing set up at Sisters Chapel on the Spelman College campus. Coretta Scott King had wanted to let the thousands of people waiting for the doors to open inside, but Clayton urged her to view the body first. It would be a wise decision.
Clayton and a handful of family and close friends, including one white woman, joined Mrs. King for the viewing. King’s was especially disturbing.
“His jaw looked as if someone had scooped a dirty piece of clay and smashed it upside his face,” Clayton recalled. “It was red and ugly and unsightly.”
She asked the mortician to fix it only to get a crass response. “He said, ‘Miss, his jaw was blown off, that’s the best we could do.’”
It wasn’t, and Clayton took matters into her own hands. She asked King’s mother, a dark-skinned woman, and the white woman each for some facial powder, mixed the two shades to match King’s complexion and applied it to his face.
“It made such a difference,” she said.
Clayton has continued to make a difference in the world around her. She spent nearly 30 years at Turner Broadcasting, where she founded the Trumpet Awards, a prestigious event that recognizes the accomplishments of African Americans. She’s also credited with changing the life of a top Ku Klux Klan official. Calvin Craig was the Grand Dragon of the Georgia KKK when he got to know Clayton through a community program. Craig resigned from the Klan in 1968, crediting Clayton for his change and denouncing the organization.
Join us on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday to hear from someone who remembers the man behind the legacy.
“When you saw him in public talking, he was serious and all business,” Clayton said. “In private, he was free to be himself. He would laugh and tell jokes—he was the best storyteller ever.”