By D.E. Smoot
Phoenix Staff Writer
A Muskogee native who earned an international reputation for her humanitarianism, civil rights work and broadcasting career will be recognized by her hometown with a street named in her honor.
Xernona Clayton, a daughter of the Rev. James Brewster and his wife, Lillie Brewster, worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. after she took a position in 1965 with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta. Clayton said her work with King and other pioneers instilled within her a “firm belief to make my moments (in life) count.”
Clayton launched her broadcasting career two years later and became the first black in the South to have her own television show, which “opened the door” for other minorities in the field. She went on to work for Turner Broadcasting System, where she was appointed the corporate vice president for urban affairs.
Ward III Councilor Derrick Reed, who presented the proposal Monday for City Council approval, said the request to rename the street was made by a task force that is overseeing efforts to build a new Martin Luther King Center. The site of the new King Center will be on the property where Clayton was born, he said.
“Ms. Xernona is a really big deal,” Reed said about the impact the 1948 Manual Training High School graduate had on the advancement of civil rights, racial equality and the march toward justice. “And there are a lot of people right here in Muskogee who really don’t have any idea about all the great things she has done.”
Clayton described the proposal to rename a street after her as “an honor that is beyond measure.” Although Clayton has been honored with a number of prestigious awards for her “distinguished leadership” in social justice work and her professional endeavors, she said having a street in her hometown named after her is proof “you can go home again.”
“I got my grounding right there in Muskogee,” Clayton said. “I remember as a young girl that I had my limitations, that I was born black in a city and at a time where segregation was everywhere.”
Those times have changed because of the hard work by civil rights pioneers to break down barriers of stereotypes and negative attitudes. Clayton said the fact that the street being named in her honor will intersect with Martin Luther King Street and run adjacent to a community center named after him is symbolic of her life.
“Martin Luther King ... enriched my life, but to have the (King) Center placed where I was born connects us again,” Clayton said, noting that she will be attend a gala in January to help raise money for the new community center. “Here we are, coming back, and that just makes the circle really round and really beautiful.”
Clayton left Muskogee after high school and earned her undergraduate degree at what is now Tennessee State University in Nashville. She pursued graduate studies at the University of Chicago and then moved to Los Angeles before she “was summoned back south to work with Dr. King.”
“I have been blessed: I have had wonderful people in my life and been able to make my moments count,” Clayton said. “All of us are born into this world, but too many come here and just occupy space. My firm belief is to make those moments count.”
To ensure that those moments that count are recognized, Clayton founded the Trumpet Awards Foundation to highlight the accomplishments and contributions of African-Americans and others who have worked to promote justice and equality. The Trumpet Awards, which have been televised annually since 1993 by the Turner Broadcasting System, are part of Clayton’s efforts to carry on King’s philosophy.
“He told me ... we must do everything we can to change negative attitudes — until you change a man’s heart you won’t change his attitude,” said Clayton, whose conversations with a grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan persuaded the man to renounce the organization and its agenda. “We are changing negative attitudes with the Trumpet Awards.”
The segment of North Third Street that will be renamed stretches from Martin Luther King Street north to Girard Street. Reed said a street dedication ceremony is planned to coincide with Clayton’s visit in January for the King Center fundraiser.
Parks Director Mark Wilkerson said construction of the new King Center could cost up to $500,000. The facility, which was built in three phases over the years, began showing significant signs of wear and tear early last year after a series of small earthquakes rocked parts of Oklahoma.
Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or firstname.lastname@example.org.