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Civil rights activist Xernona Clayton looks back on her life and her work

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This weekend on Juneteenth, the 30th Trumpet Awards airs on Bounce TV. The awards were created to recognize the accomplishments of African Americans, so we wanted to sit down with the creator of the awards, Xernona Clayton. At almost 91 years old, she has had an amazing life. She's been a broadcaster, a broadcast executive, an entrepreneur and, most notably, a civil rights icon. She was a confidante to Martin Luther King Jr., and her deep belief that Black and white people could learn to get along persuaded her to get to know - really get to know - a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan back in 1968. What happened next surprised even her.

XERNONA CLAYTON: He decided he had to change, and he announced through a press conference that he was coming out of the organization and credited a Black woman with changing his negative attitude. And I was that Black woman.

CHANG: When I spoke with Xernona Clayton, I asked her what she was most struck by when she looked back on her many accomplishments.

CLAYTON: I turned 90.

(LAUGHTER)

CLAYTON: Like...

CHANG: Nice, nice.

CLAYTON: It's hard to say.

CHANG: It's amazing.

CLAYTON: A year and a half ago, that sounded so old to me. And I said, you know, that's a long time to live on this Earth. And then I asked myself, what have I been doing for 90 years?

CHANG: Are you kidding me?

CLAYTON: Have I been occupying space, or have I done something worthwhile? Those are the questions I ask myself. Then I said, well, in order for me to find out, I'm going to jot down some of the memorable moments of my life.

CHANG: Yeah.

CLAYTON: And I looked at my record, and I said, oh, that's not a bad record at all.

CHANG: Well, I think it's safe to say that you've done more than fair in your 90 years on this Earth so far. I want to go back to your early years a little bit. You grew up in Oklahoma, and even though segregation was a fact of life back then, you have said that, as a child, you didn't have to confront, like, the harsher aspects of segregation. Can you talk about that? Like, how were you insulated to some extent when you were growing up from the more painful consequences of segregation?

CLAYTON: You know, when you're living your life, you're not questioning it. You're just living it. And I grew up in a segregated environment, as you now know. And so it wasn't a question. It was just like, I lived in the Black neighborhood, went to a Black school. Our white neighbors went to the white school, and that's the way it was. I had one advantage, I think, that I used as my propulsion into the life that I ended up trying to manage, and that was my father was a well-respected member of the community to the point that even the police chief and the mayor would sometimes come to our house to privately talk to my father.

CHANG: They were both white, right?

CLAYTON: Yeah. What do you do with the guys they picked up trying to break into a car or some misdemeanor? You don't want to throw them in jail and keep them there for months. So they'd come down and ask Daddy, what do you think we ought to do with this guy?

CHANG: You saw these two white men respect your father.

CLAYTON: Yeah, yeah, yeah, which means that while they came on a mission, I saw them coming into our house, so I saw white people all the time. And so I grew up, fortunately, not hating white people and not being afraid of them. That was the main thing - not being afraid - because, you know, a lot of Black people have just been afraid of the white man because we've been treated so severely - poorly, that is. And so I didn't have that. I had the better side of the bad life, but my father wouldn't want that anyway. He taught us that there's goodness in everybody.

CHANG: So as you grew older, how did you come to learn the uglier, more brutal side of segregation? Like, are there any moments that imprinted on your mind?

CLAYTON: I still feel the pain and the suffering of my first experience. My sister and I and our two boyfriends - the four of us went out. But I was in college, so, you see; I was well over 18. But somewhere in that age - that's a little old for learning the lesson of the real segregation directly. We had gone out to an event, and on the way back to the dormitory, we said - you know, everybody wanted a hamburger. So we saw a hamburger place. We stopped, went at it. We just had such a wonderful evening.

We walked in there, the four of us, and this white owner was standing there with his butcher knife. And we said, we want some hamburgers. And he said, you [expletive] get out of here. And he held up the knife, and he said, if you don't leave the premises now, I will cut all your heads off. You know you don't belong here, so get out. And we didn't know that we weren't welcome. We knew it then - so painful and, of course, scared us to death. We weren't expecting it. We just thought it was a hamburger place. You go in to get a hamburger, not to cause trouble. I still feel that pain.

CHANG: Do you remember when you first decided to get involved in activism? Like, was there a particular point for you where you decided, I need to do something?

CLAYTON: Yes, when I walked out of that hamburger place. I've gotten involved in so many causes because I thought we got to fight the dragons of prejudice.

CHANG: Let me ask you - you drove Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the airport to catch his flight to Memphis the day before his assassination. And in the days that followed, you were in the house with Coretta Scott King and the family, trying to support them. When you think about how incredibly divided the country was back then, how overtly racist it was, what do you make of where we are today, more than a half-century later? Like, do you think progress has been too slow?

CLAYTON: Progress has been slow. But I think about - when I think about Dr. King's feelings about life as he knew it, he was such a patient man in spirit that he was willing to wait. But he knew we were waiting too long for equity in our society. He felt very strongly that white men and women can love us as Black men and women. And he said, God created each of us in his own image. And underneath the skin, we're all the same. God created us, and in the godly image, we can love each other.

And so he was kind of admonishing us all the time. Do what you can to love everybody. And I wish that everybody could do the same thing now. That's a tall wish that you could put that thought in everybody's heart. But he said if we talk it enough and act it out enough, we could make it a reality. And I tell you, I will always be grateful that I lived close to him, worked for him, loved him a lot, tried to follow some of his teachings, did the best I could and can still carry his thoughtful life pattern to this day.

CHANG: Civil rights activist Xernona Clayton, thank you so much for being with us. It has been an honor, a true honor, to talk to you.

CLAYTON: My pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUNGEE AND VETO SONG, "S.M.I.U.H.2") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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