Remembering a Legend
King family friend shares stories from his life
What would Martin Luther King Jr. say today if he saw a black president win re-election and enjoy a second inauguration on what would have been King’s birthday? “He would say ‘I told you so,’ ” Xernona Clayton said. “He said years ago if you have people of all persuasions get together, we will win this fight for equality.”
A close friend of the King family, Clayton shared stories about the man behind the legend with a standing-room audience in the Kimball Ballroom. The talk capped a daylong MLK Day symposium during which participants learned about leadership and responsibility.
Clayton described King as “a man who practiced what he preached.” When he received a personal check with the Noble Peace Prize, for example, he gave it away, explaining to his staff that the honor was not for him but rather for the work they were doing.
While comedic in his private life, Clayton described a stoic public figure, especially when faced with negativity. Clayton especially recalls one instance in which a well-dressed white man approached him, asked if he was Martin Luther King and spat in his face when he said “yes.” Clayton wanted to retaliate but King refused and instead simply wiped his face.
“He never showed retaliation,” Clayton recalled. “He said ‘Never show anger. We still have lots of work to do.’ ” It proved more difficult when the inequity impacted his children. King once said the hardest thing he ever had to do was to explain to his 12-year-old daughter that she could not go to Fun Town, a local amusement park the family passed on the way to the airport, because of her skin color.
A few days before his assassination, Clayton picked King up at his home to take him to the airport. His two young sons at the time begged him not to go—even jumping on the hood of her car in hopes of stopping him. Clayton remembers King noting the odd behavior and saying he needed to spend more time with them.
There were other indications of premonitions about his death. Instead of the bouquet of red roses he usually gave his wife for her April 27 birthday, he left her an artificial arrangement just in case he would not be there.
That he’s remembered and honored today is proof of his accomplishments, Clayton said.
“Martin Luther King Jr. has given us an opportunity today, on his birthday nearly 50 years later, to still celebrate his life,” she said. Noting the diversity of the audience, Clayton concluded: “He wanted us to have this America.”Read more in the Missourian.