My Friend MLK 'Died of a Broken Heart'
Legendary activist Xernona Clayton talks about her relationship with Dr. King, who was murdered 50 years ago. She's a prominent voice in HBO's new documentary, 'King in the Wilderness.'
Some dreams are so outlandish that they can only exist in the depths of one’s imagination. Others are so maddeningly simple that a person can spend a lifetime trying to bring them to fruition. Xernona Clayton dedicated her life to pursuing the latter alongside the most famous dreamer in history, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The pioneering activist and media mogul told VICE in a phone interview that she was less of a dreamer and more of a doer—particularly when it came to seeking equal rights for African Americans. Sadly, 50 years after the assassination of Dr. King, even the act of guiding his dream from an abstract thought to a reality remains one of the most hard-fought battles in America—but one Clayton has never abandoned.
In the new HBO documentary King in the Wilderness, the former television executive and member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference shares how the final three years of Dr. King’s life pushed his radical idea of equality for all races further from his grasp. As a montage of clips of Dr. King marching and preaching around the United States flashes across the screen, Clayton can be heard saying something unconscionable: “It had bothered him deeply that the nation had turned against him. And I always tell people he died of a broken heart.”
Amid the rise of the alt-right, rampant police brutality, and a president whose inflammatory rhetoric is racially divisive, viewers are poised to ask themselves: Is Dr. King’s vision a dream deferred? From voicing his dissenting opinion on the Vietnam War to coming face-to-face with an enhanced form of racism in Chicago, in retrospect, it is not surprising to see Dr. King lament “that the dream that I had that day has in many points turned into a nightmare.” When VICE spoke with Clayton, she explained that behind the media appearances and the fanfare was just a mortal man and his friends trying to do the right thing and getting stopped at every turn.
To Clayton, enduring the trauma of racism only propelled her to continue fighting to achieve Dr. King's dream. As the first black person in the South to have her own television show, she made sure coverage of the movement gave an accurate depiction of the horrors of racism and the resilience of those who fought to abolish it. And as the founder and president of the Trumpet Awards Foundation, she celebrates blacks who are aiding in that battle against inequality. I spoke to Clayton about her lifetime of advocacy on behalf of black people and her relationship with her close friend, Dr. King. Here's what she had to say.
This article has been edited for clarity and length.
VICE: Why did you become an activist?
Xernona Clayton: When you’re born in America, it doesn’t take but a little while into your life to run into some difficulties. You realize there wasn’t empathy. There wasn’t justice. There was a big difference in how you were treated as a black person. You always knew it. But it takes a commitment when you realize it’s going to stay like this if someone doesn’t do something.
Describe defining moment in your life that affirmed this realization.
I had a painful experience when I was in college in Nashville, Tennessee. We went out one night—two couples—and on the way back to the dorm, we passed a hamburger place. We went in—all of us had money—and we wanted some hamburgers. The man [behind the counter] had a butcher knife that seemed a yard long. He picked it up and said, “You know you don’t belong here. If you niggers don’t get out of here, I’ll chop all of your heads off.” Of course, we immediately went out. That hurts. It still hurts. When they said, “You’re not good enough,” “You don’t belong.” When you hear phrases like that it does something to your psyche. What prevents you from belonging? What really prevents you from being OK? That never left me.
How did you go about combatting discriminatory practices prior to joining the SCLC?
My sister and I had very good friends in the Urban League in Chicago. They had a program where they wanted to see if major companies who seemed like nice guys really were. They were testing employment practices and my sister and I were asked to participate. We would look at the wanted pages and see if there’s a job opening. Our strategy was to be no more than 10 minutes, time wise, from the location. We would call and say, “I see you have an ad in the paper for a clerk-typist. Is that still available?” The young lady said, “Yes.” Well, they’re just 10 minutes away. I would go and as soon as I would walk in the door I said, “I called about the job that was in the paper.” She said, “Oh, I’m so sorry. We just filled it.” How do you fill a position in 10 minutes? You know then what the problem is. That was a test but you just knew that a reality though.
How did you become involved in the SCLC?
I was living in Los Angeles with my late husband, Ed Clayton. He [was] the editor of Jet magazine so he became known throughout the industry. Dr. King was in Atlanta and realized the SCLC was growing to the point where they needed staffing in the areas of public relations and speech writing. Every place he went on his search he’d run into people and say, “I’m looking for good journalists. Who do you know who would fit my bill?” And they’d say, “Oh, Ed Clayton he’s very smart.” Dr. King called him and asked him if he would be interested in coming to Atlanta and seeing if he could help them out. He came to Atlanta just to stay for two weeks. He met Mrs. King, of course, and she was planning to use her musical ability to raise funds for the SCLC. Ed said, “You could use churches as your launching pad. My wife could help you.” He put us together long distance and we started traveling together on her first tour. With some encouragement from the Kings, we moved down here to join the SCLC.
What was your specific job in the SCLC?
I was involved in almost everything we did. At that time, there were people who wanted to refer to Dr. King as a chauvinist because [they didn’t] see many women involved in the movement. Well, he had a high regard for women and a lot of things that had to be done. You just don’t get up and march. You’ve got to plan the march with legal preparation. You’ve got to get water for the marchers. You’ve got to map out the route. You’ve got to have money available if they get thrown in jail. You’ve got to have a hospital plan if they get hurt. A lot of that was my area of responsibility.
Today, Dr. King is a beloved figure. But how did people perceive him during the 1960s?
Everybody didn’t like Dr. King. There were people in some cities and neighborhoods that would say, “Well, he’s coming here with the movement and all they’re going to do is tear up the city and leave. He’s just coming out to destroy our town.” All of his programs were not well received because it depends on the leadership of the cities. You’ve got people who denounced him and criticized him because some of that happened. When you come to a city, you’re going to disturb the tranquility. But that’s what it was designed to do. He never went uninvited. The local community would have to invite him. That was his requirement. He didn’t go to just tear up a city. He went to improve it.
The film shows that Dr. King had issues with the term, "Black Power.” What do you think of the Black Lives Matter movement? Would Dr. King have liked it?
I had problems with it initially. Just the name alone. Dr. King was so effective in having us think in terms of totality—the total man, the total community, the total human existence—that we’re all men and women together. Blacks and white together. We’ve been separated based on skin color, but we really are the same. He wouldn’t pick out just the men or the women. The terminology disturbed a lot of us that felt like, “Oh gee. Why do they have to say that?” But, once I talked with some of them, I could see the intent was not to be segregated. In too many cities across the country, black men [are] being disproportionately brutalized and mistreated by policemen in a higher number than anyone else. I understood later the rationale but not the language.
How did Dr. King use the media to spread his message?
Oh, he loved the media! That’s how I ended up in television in a sense. He talked about the media being so helpful. He said you could talk about a dog nipping at the clothes of a kid trying to swim in the pool. But when the media gets a photograph of it, you see it. You no longer have to imagine it. He thought that they played such a vital role in helping to get sight to the problem as he was fighting those issues.
But you had a different philosophy back then.
One day, I was asked to speak to a group of journalists and I told them how much Dr. King valued them. But that this was one area in which I disagreed with him. This was in 1966. There were no black people on television—nobody. I said, “It’s hard for me to see once they’ve gotten the call and the station’s going to cover this inequality properly.” The white assignment editor gives the story to a white reporter who picks up a white cameraman and they go out and document this [discrimination]. They bring the film back to a lily white processor who gives it to a lily white editor and writer who gives it to a lily white assignment chief who gives it to a lily white anchor and then they come on TV saying, “Oh, isn’t this awful?” I said, “I can’t see any difference between the shutout over there and the shutout in the industry.” I got a call from a CBS affiliate in Atlanta and they said, “Boy, did you embarrass us today with that speech!” One of them said, “Well, we really hadn’t even noticed, but now we want to fix the problem.” I thought they were going to ask me to recommend somebody they thought would be good to help break the color barrier. I said, “Do you have someone in mind?” They said, “Oh, yeah.” I said, “Who is it?” They said, “You!” I said, “Me?” They said, “Yes, we like the way you handle [race relations].”
Why don’t we hear more about the contributions that women made to the Civil Rights Movement?
Women were seen and not heard. You don’t talk about them. You learn how to just do the job without looking for the credit. You get conditioned to that because that’s just the way it is. There weren’t times when we felt sorry for ourselves like, “We’re women and they’re mistreating us,” because it was universal. All women were having the same positioning that you were seen and not heard. It wasn’t until we had some samplings of a women’s movement when women said, “Me too. I’ve got talent and I’ve been doing this. Why not give me recognition for it?” There was a yearning and a period in America when women decided to start speaking out. But prior to that, we just all did what had to be done and did not worry whether we got the credit or not.
This story is a part of VICE's ongoing effort to highlight the contributions of black women around the globe who are making a difference. To read more stories about strong black women making history today, go here.
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- Civil Rights
- black power
- King in the Wilderness
- Xernona Clayton
- Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King