Jun 16, 2022
For Xernona Clayton, standing over Martin Luther King Jr.’s body as it lay in a casket inside Spelman College’s Sisters Chapel, the feeling was unreal.
Looking at her friend, she noticed a “big blob on his right cheek. Red like the red clay of Georgia. It was pretty unsightly.”
Her mind flashed back to just three months earlier when she planned a rousing surprise party for King to celebrate his 39th birthday.
She thought about how exhausted she was after trudging, without a cent to her name, to a local dress shop to secure dresses for Coretta Scott King to wear at her husband’s funeral.
But Clayton, the first Black woman in the South to host their own daily TV show, was always the King whisperer. The person the King family and the Atlanta civil rights community looked to for guidance, calm and protection.
So she asked the mortician to do something about the red blob, but he refused, saying that was the best he could do. Clayton went to Mama King, who was dark-skinned, and the wife of Harry Belafonte, who was white, and took their facial powders.
“I mixed up a little roux... and we put his handkerchief around Martin’s neck, and I proceeded to tone this down with the powder I mixed up,” Clayton said. “It blended more evenly with the rest of his face and made such a difference. Coretta smiled.”
In this 2008 interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Clayton candidly talked about those days immediately after the April 4, 1968 assassination of King.
Clayton’s conversation was part of an oral history project marking the then 40th anniversary of King’s death. King III was one of 13 people that The AJC sat down with to record their stories and shed light on the life and death of the civil rights leader.
We are re-releasing these interviews as a 13-part podcast hosted by Multimedia Journalist Ryon Horne.
Along with Clayton, Martin Luther King III, Kathryn Johnson, Tyrone Brooks, Earl Caldwell, Andrew Young, Xernona Clayton and Bernice King, and those who have left us — including Billy Kyle, Juanita Abernathy, Ralph David Abernathy III, the Rev. Joseph Lowery and Congressman John Lewis — each gives us a glimpse, through their relationships with King, inside the making of history.
Each episode will be made available through the Unapologetically ATL newsletter, but you can also subscribe to “The Voices of King” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts so you never miss an episode.
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