WHETHER STANDING AT THE SIDE OFDr. Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King or during a long history in television as corporate vice president for urban affairs at Turner Broadcasting, Xernona Clayton enjoyed a proximity to history and remains anxious to share that view with the world. Clayton recently appeared in Bradenton at a screening of A Life To Remember, a documentary on her life, and sat down with SRQ to discuss how the civil rights movement continues to evolve today. 

SRQ: What do you hope people hearing your story will feel in terms of their own connection to the struggles of 1960s and the work of the Kings?  Xernona Clayton: 

With what’s going on in the minds of our young people, sometimes I get the feeling they fail to see a connection between the work we did to make today’s environment workable. With the last national election, we had the lowest black turnout we’ve had in 27 years. That bothers me greatly. In my day, we worked hard to get the Voting Rights Act. [Before that], it didn’t matter if black people stayed at home and slept on Election Day because there was no place to go anyway. They couldn’t vote. We made it possible through the deaths, pain and suffering of people in my generation who helped create the opportunity to vote, and they are failing to vote. That people died to make your right a reality, the least you could do is exercise it. 

Growing up with so many social barriers, how did you personally overcome the obstacles of the day? I don’t want to say I had it better than anybody else. A lot of black people moved ahead in spite of obstacles of racial discrimination and inequities in so many areas. We just kept pushing. What bothers me the most is you take a man like Dr. Charles Drew, who was African-American. There was a time you couldn’t preserve blood at the hospitals, and if they didn’t have blood handily available you died for a lack of it. He created blood plasma preservation, which means everybody who needed blood could possibly get it. What happened to him? He was driving on the way home from a medical conference, encountered a very serious accident and needed blood to save his life, but because he was black, he couldn’t get any blood and he died. We, as African-Americans, are the first to not know our history. Dr. King said if we knew our history, black people would feel more self-assurance and pride. He also didn’t think all white people loved to hate because they just loved to hate. It was his opinion some hated us because they didn’t know us. If white America knew that we as a racial group contributed significantly to the richness of this country, we’d probably have a better world. I created the Trumpet Awards, an award program that emphasizes the contributions of African Americans, and I can tell you first hand, white Americans have called in significant numbers telling me I opened their eyes through this television program. We’ve had an ignorance prevailing in our country where race relations is concerned. I just happened to be wrapped up in a security blanket. My father told me that you’re no better than anybody else and absolutely nobody is better than you. I knew that prejudice existed, and I knew that bigotry was a reality. I knew injustice was prevailing, but I was not going to let those obstacles stand in my way.

Do you think the figures you worked with like Dr. King knew they would become such revered figures?  Dr. King amazingly enough put very little emphasis on himself.
He believed the work he was doing was going to speak for itself. He often said until and unless you change a man’s heart, you are never going to be able to regulate his behavior.
He worked toward bringing peace and understanding, the change of heart that would
lead us to this better America.