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Xernona Clayton

A Monumental Icon

Article by Becca McCoy

Photography by Becca McCoy

Originally published in SOFU Lifestyle

“When women lead, streams run uphill.”

As Johnnetta B. Cole, PhD, cited that African proverb in downtown Atlanta on March 8, the sun broke through the clouds, shining brightly on the remainder of the festivities. Emcee Fred Blankenship noted this sunny timing to the hundreds of people gathered to celebrate a bright light among them: Xernona Clayton.

With the unveiling of the sculpture situated in Xernona Clayton Plaza, the diminutive icon of enormous accomplishments becomes the first Black woman to have a statue in Atlanta—unveiled on International Women’s Day. But being the first shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Clayton’s legacy, as she has a long list of firsts. 

“You’ve had a front row seat to a good deal of Atlanta’s history mainly because you had a hand in a lot of Atlanta’s history,” said Mayor Andre Dickens, one of over 20 speakers at the celebration. The speakers were a varied list of friends and colleagues, but all shared a common thread of how impactful she had been in their lives and how pleased they were to celebrate her while she was alive to receive the adulation. Clayton is a seemingly impossible 92 years young—sharp, vibrant, and stylish. Wearing white and silver and sporting her signature bun, which foreshadowed the statue’s aesthetics, she didn’t skip a beat when her microphone temporarily went out, continuing to connect with the people close enough to hear her.

She arrived in Atlanta in 1961 by personal invitation of Martin Luther King, Jr. She worked as an organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and would go on to be an esteemed colleague of Ted Turner, who appointed her as his first Black female vice president. It was during her illustrious career in broadcast journalism that she founded the Trumpet Awards, lauding the contributions and accomplishments of Black Americans still to this day.

The parade of speakers delighted in lauding Clayton, with DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond calling her a woman “not afraid to speak truth to power, no matter where that power resides.”

“Xernona is an MVP for justice,” said Reverend Frederick Haynes III, while others spoke about her “courage, conviction, and creativity,” and former Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle called her a woman of “endless elegance and timeless beauty.”

That elegance and beauty will indeed be timeless, thanks to the 8-foot bronze statue fabricated by renowned sculptor Ed Dwight, who giggled alongside Clayton as she joked that he had been instructed to make her a combination of Halle Berry, Lena Horne, and Coretta King. But she was not joking when she commented on the location of her triumvirate of honors—an honorary street name, plaza, and statue (the first woman in Atlanta to have all three) located near the hotel where she and Dr. King were welcomed after being forced out of another. 

“I, Xernona Clayton, was thrown out of a hotel. Now you’re backed by a street named Xernona Clayton Way,” she declared.

Music augmented the nearly 2-hour program, from the Tri-Cities Marching Band, to soprano Abiodun Koya’s rousing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” to trumpeter Melvin M. Miller providing the fanfare as the statue was revealed. The veil came down, revealing a smiling bronze Xernona Clayton, arms outstretched, and situated atop a black and green granite base. Cheers erupted as the crowd gazed upon a figure in white backed by a blue sky. It was a beautiful day to be in the shadow of a stunning new piece of public art commemorating a longtime legend. In the words of Clayton herself, “One person can make a difference.” 

  • Sculptor Ed Dwight