Clayton Reminds of Civil Rights Urgency

Inspire

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY FRESHLY SQUEEZED CONTENT EVERY MORNING THURSDAY NOV 16, 2017

Dr. Xernona Clayton had a front row seat for the Civil Rights movement serving as special assistant to Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife Coretta Scott King. But she worries that the rights fought for in the 1960s may be taken for granted today. A year after an election where African-American turnout in elections hit a 27-year low, she wishes more voters took seriously the responsibility to employ the civil rights earned by leaders in history. As someone who helped install the Voting Rights Act into law, that distresses the long-time activist.

“When people die to make your right a reality,” Clayton says, “the least you can do is exercise it.”

Clayton comes to Bradenton on hopes of connecting more people to the history and struggle of King and other leaders. She’s here for a Lifetime Achievement Celebration held tonight at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, which will include a screening of the documentary A Life To Remember, about Clayton’s own life climbing from young activist to broadcasting trailblazer. Well after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., Clayton remained a force in giving voice to minorities, becoming the first black host of a television show broadcast in the South. 

The Atlanta-based personality also worked with Ted Turner in the early days of cable broadcasting and would rise to the level of corporate vice president for urban affairs at Turner Broadcasting, a company where she would work for 31 years. During that time, she also launched the immensely successful Trumpet Awards, a televised event celebrating the achievements of African-Americans.

So Clayton knows firsthand the obstacles faced by black people in the Jim Crow era, but also that such injustice can be overcome. “I certainly don’t want to say I had it better than anyone else,” she says, “but there were a lot of black people who moved ahead in spite of the obstacles of racial discrimination and inequality. You just keep pushing.”

That may be the great difference in mindset, she says. While the struggle remained real in the streets, every win would be instantly cherished. Before the Voting Rights Act, black voters in the South had little incentive to vote because there were no polling places in reasonable locales, and when that changed people took advantage. “The pain and suffering of people in my generation created the opportunity to vote,” she says. “There was an urgency to the work we did. Without the urgency, people just take it for granted, which is very unfortunate.”

The event honoring Clayton opens to the public at 6pm.

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