Credit: Courtesy of Sue Ross
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Xernona Clayton — the woman, the legend — now has a statue in Atlanta
From Wednesday forward, everyone will look up to the barely 5-foot Xernona Clayton as there is now an 8-foot bronze statue in downtown Atlanta honoring the broadcasting pioneer and civil rights legend.
The legend was delightfully recalled in an outdoor ceremony on a brisk International Women's Day morning by some 20-plus speakers, including her longtime friend and fellow pioneer Ambassador Andrew Young, Mayor Andre Dickens and, judging by the parade of men who declared it when it was their time at the podium, her many, many "boyfriends."
The playful fawning began with Fred Blankenship, who served as co-host of the unveiling ceremony with fellow WSB-TV anchor Karyn Greer.
Next was Dickens, who apparently thought he only had the married honoree's affection. Bishop Neil C. Ellis introduced himself as Clayton's "boyfriend in the Bahamas."
By the time Young made his way in front of the crowd of hundreds of luminaries from Hollywood (actor Chris Tucker), media (CNN's Fredricka Whitfield, CBS's Michelle Miller, Atlanta News First's Monica Pearson) and politics (former Mayor Bill Campbell), he summarily put all of the aforementioned in their place: "I am not her boyfriend. I was around before all of you were born!"
It was Young and Clayton's mutual friend, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who asked Clayton to move to Atlanta in the early '60s, to work at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
The decade before, as part of the Chicago Urban League, she helped it prove discrimination in hiring at Marshall Fields, forcing the major department store to hire its first Black employees.
She married Jet magazine editor Edward Clayton, who during his tenure at the renowned Black culture weekly galvanized the country when he placed the 14-year-old lynching victim Emmett Till's disfigured image on the publication’s cover, because his mother wanted to show the world what was done to him.
The Claytons were influencers in political and entertainment circles long before there was social media, and the Kings came calling, in hopes they could their connections to the rich and famous to widen the civil right’s movements reach — and bolster its coffers.
After her work with King and Young at the SCLC, Clayton went on to develop a professional relationship and enduring friendship with media mogul Ted Turner. He made her Turner’s first Black female vice president, and there she launched the Trumpet Awards, a now-30-year-old event highlighting African American accomplishments and contributions.
But King was still clearly on Clayton's mind as she finally took the stage in Xernona Clayton Plaza, at West Peachtree Street and Xernona Clayton Way, in the shadow of The Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel.
Decades earlier, she told the audience, she and King were gruffly asked to leave a hotel then located behind the Westin because of their activist work.
“I, Xernona Clayton was thrown out of a hotel," she said. "Now you’re standing and backed by a street named Xernona Clayton Way.”
All that was left to do now was unveil her statue.
Trumpeter Melvin Miller began the fanfare. TV and phone cameras went up. And the cover was pulled back.
"Fabulous!" 93-year-old Clayton declared. "I asked [sculptor] Ed [Dwight] to make me look like the young beauties Halle Berry, Lena Horne and Coretta King. And I have to say, I'm kinda cute!"