Civil rights icon Xernona Clayton became the first woman to be enshrined with a statue in downtown Atlanta on March 8. The eight-foot statue with its arms open, propped high on a pedestal, looks down on Xernona Clayton Plaza, making the petite icon a giant in the cradle city of the modern Civil Rights Movement.
World renowned sculptor Ed Dwight created the bronze statue despite challenges with his vision. With Dwight by her side, Clayton announced that it would be his final commissioned project. “As he was making this statue he lost vision in his good eye,” Clayton said at a private dinner before the unveiling. “But if he could do this without seeing, imagine what he could do if he had vision.”
More than 20 speakers, including representatives from the Bahamas and Ghana, praised Clayton at the unveiling ceremony, which was followed by “High Heels in High Places,” an event honoring distinguished women in business and journalism. Among the “sheroes: honored at the dinner were California Black Media (CBM) Executive Director Regina Brown Wilson and LA Focus Publisher Lisa Collins. Clayton also acknowledged the mothers of several local celebrities, including Silvia Dickens, mother of Atlanta mayor Andre Dickens, Trice Morgan, mother of rapper T.I., and Mary Tucker, mother of comedian Chris Tucker.
A few of the speakers at the event claimed to be Clayton’s boyfriends, including Atlanta mayor Andre Dickens, who began working on the project as a city councilman, and Clayton’s close friend and fellow civil rights icon, Ambassador Andrew Young. Former CNN President, Tom Johnson spoke on behalf of Ted Turner, who was ill, lauding Clayton’s outstanding achievements and attesting to her contributions to broadcast media. Clayton was also a consistent supporter of the Black Press across the country.
Martin Luther King III reflected on his memories of Clayton growing up. “There is no greater honor than what is being done here today,” said King III.
At the unveiling, Clayton recalled arranging logistics for a meeting between Dr. King and supporters of the SCLC in the heart of Atlanta. “I pride myself in getting everything right before I start out, and I knew I had all my details in order for this special luncheon hosted by Dr. King, but everything went wrong,” Clayton said. The motel which supposedly had an “open door policy,” expressly told Dr. King to leave. “I Xernona Clayton was thrown out of a hotel. Now, you are standing backed by a street named Xernona Clayton Way.”
“The idea for a monument to Xernona Clayton was born from a 4 a.m. meeting with her in 2020. Our kids didn't know who she was, and we felt that such an inspiring figure deserved recognition,” said Project Co-Founder Mariela Romero, a Latina journalist, originally from Venezuela, who co-presented the idea for the statue and has been one of the forces helping to make the monument a reality. Romero said when she learned about Clayton’s contributions to the Civil Rights movement and all her personal accomplishments, she was surprised that more Americans of all races did not know about her life story and legacy.
"Seeing the statue standing proudly in Xernona Clayton Plaza, facing downtown Atlanta, fills me with incredible pride and accomplishment,” Romero added. “This project was important to us because Xernona Clayton has been a role model, she has dedicated her life to serving others and we have always admired her tenacity, grace, and vision.”
Romero partnered with philanthropist and Bank of America-Merrill executive Rick Baker to spearhead the campaign that made Clayton’s monument a reality.
Clayton became involved in the civil rights movement working for the National Urban League in Chicago. She went undercover to investigate employment discrimination against African Americans at Marshall Fields, a major Chicago department store. She moved to Atlanta at the behest of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, where she organized events for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and grew close with Dr. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King.
Clayton was instrumental in the desegregation of Atlanta’s hospitals by organizing the city's Black doctors. In 1967, Clayton became the first Black female in the southern US to host a weekly prime time talk show. The show eventually came to be known as The Xernona Clayton Show.
In 1968 Clayton’s impact in the fight against bigotry became clear when Calvin Craig, a Grand Dragon of the Klu Klux Klan, denounced the Klan, crediting Clayton’s influence in the decision.
In 1988, Clayton was named Corporate Vice President for Urban Affairs with Turner Broadcasting System. In her role she served as liaison between Turner Broadcasting and civil rights groups, both in Atlanta and across the country.
As a broadcast executive, Clayton founded the Trumpet Foundation and, with Turner Broadcasting, established the prestigious Trumpet Awards in 1993 to highlight the achievements and contributions of African Americans.
With the unveiling of the Xernona Clayton statue an influential Black woman is finally immortalized in Atlanta, a city that still holds several confederate monuments and countless stories and memories of its history in the segregated south.
This California Black Media article was supported in whole or in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library.”