Civil Rights Pioneer Gives Bradenton A Living History Lesson

 

Xernona Clayton, 87, worked for Martin Luther King Jr., receives a Lifetime Achievement Celebration in Bradenton

 

BRADENTON — When civil rights pioneer Xernona Clayton came to town on Thursday, Manatee County got a living history lesson.
“She talks about history like the people are sitting right there,” said Charles Smith, a Manatee County commissioner. “Not second- or third-hand information. She’s 87 years old. She’s a living legend.”
Clayton is petite — maybe 5 feet tall — but she arrived with a black gown, a brilliant smile and no small amount of charisma.
“When she comes into a room, she commands a room,” said Elliot Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Oh, my gosh; she’s one of the most dynamic people I’ve ever met in my life.”
At the Manatee County Performing Arts Center, Clayton talked about working with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. She described meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson to help convince him to desegregate hospitals in Atlanta and across the country.
“That’s one of the things I’m most proud of,” she said.
In Atlanta, Clayton was one of the first black people in the South to host a prime-time television program. She did interviews for “The Xernona Clayton Show.” This was 40 years before people ever heard of Oprah Winfrey.
“People forget that,” Clayton said with a grin. “She kind of took over that whole thing.”
‘Life to Remember’

Civil Rights 2

 

Friends and admirers watched a documentary about Clayton called “A Life to Remember.” It was narrated by Oscar-winning actor Louis Gossett Jr. It featured interviews with everyone from Andrew Young, the former mayor of Atlanta, to Mo’Nique, another Academy Award-winning actor.
After the film, Clayton signed copies of her book “I’ve Been Marching All the Time.”
During the Civil Rights era, she worked with King and for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
“Dr. King used to say, ‘You know, Xernona can do everything,’” Clayton told the Herald-Tribune in an interview before her visit. “So I tell people today, they ask, ‘What did you really do?’ and I say, ‘He said I can do everything; he gave me everything to do.’”
Clayton became a friend of Ralph McGill, the Pulitzer Prize-winning publisher of the Atlanta Constitution. She met broadcasting pioneer Ted Turner and worked 31 years for CNN, becoming corporate vice president for urban affairs.
Later, she founded the Trumpet Awards, which celebrate African-American achievements.
Clayton was inspired by King, who thought some white people hated blacks because they didn’t really know them.
“He thought if they knew the contributions our people had been making throughout the history of this great country, that they perhaps would have a different view,” Clayton said. “And he challenged all of us, not just me, to do what you can all the time to try to change those negative attitudes.”
‘Embracing Bradenton’
It was the Trumpet Awards that led to her receiving a Lifetime Achievement Celebration in Bradenton.
Smith had suggested to Falcione that Manatee County look into hosting the annual awards program. They met with Clayton, who then made a few trips to Florida.
“It’s a step in progress,” Falcione said. “We respect that the awards have been very successful in Atlanta. But we’ve embraced her and she’s embraced us.”
Before the Thursday program, Clayton showed she still knows how to meet and greet. She hugged small children and praised their parents. When people introduced themselves, she gripped them by the arm and looked into their eyes.
Clayton said her father was a preacher and her mother was a housekeeper. She grew up in Muskogee, Oklahoma. That’s where she got her surprising first name.
“We had a Greek neighbor who was a friend and suggested it,” she said. “Xernona — my name is unusual. The Greek spelling is with an X, but it sounds like a Z.”

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