Monday, January 19, 2015

"Burial For A King," Rebecca Burns: Atlanta, April 1968

January 15 is the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968).

A recent book by Rebecca Burns, Burial For A King, recalls the events in Atlanta surrounding the weekend of Reverend King's assassination in Memphis. Disturbances occurred in many cities, and in Atlanta there were concerns there might be rioting during the funeral itself. Here is an early excerpt about a lunch that Thursday, April 4, after King's departure to Tennessee, in which a friend arranges an unusual meeting for King after his scheduled return.

"Of all the weird ideas you've had for me, this is one of the weirdest," Martin Luther King Jr. told Xernona Clayton when she approached him with a request: Calvin Craig, Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, wanted to meet him. Would he consider? King eventually agreed, and so on this Thursday, the day after she took King to the airport to catch a flight to Memphis, Clayton had lunch with Craig to finalize the details.

While they ate in the Marriott's tropical-themed dining room, Clayton realized the attention they were drawing. It was still odd in 1960s Atlanta to see a black woman and a white man sharing a meal -- especially in a hotel restaurant. On top of that, she and Craig were minor local celebrities, which contributed to the raised eyebrows, sideways glances, and outright stares.

She was the star of The Xernona Clayton Show on the local CBS affiliate -- the first television show in the South to be hosted by a black woman. Her husband, Ed Clayton, had directed public relations for Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and after Ed died she had filled in when needed. She frequently traveled with King's wife Coretta Scott King. Diminutive and feisty Clayton was recognized by her trademark hairstyle -- a tall, tightly pinned topknot anchored by a shiny headband. She had a flair for fashion and an enviably taut figure; she had met Ed when he begged her and her identical twin, Xenobia, to model bikinis for the centerfold of Jet magazine.

In contrast to the chic Clayton, Calvin Craig was a burly construction worker, mustached and with arms and a neck reddened from a lifetime of outdoor labor. Like Clayton, Calvin Craig was familiar to television viewers -- but as the subject of news stories, not a polished anchor. He notoriously appeared in full Klan regalia to lead anti-integration protests through the streets of Atlanta or on the steps of the Georgia capitol. He traveled throughout the South to attend cross burnings.

Craig and Clayton met through Model Cities, the urban component of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. Craig was named to the program as the representative from Adair Park, a neighborhood of mostly working-class whites not far from its predominantly black counterpart, Pittsburgh. Their first encounter was prickly; Clayton watched as Craig scooted from chair to chair to avoid sitting next to any black participant in the meeting. Not long after, Craig visited Clayton's office and rattled her as he revealed he had compiled a dossier on her. ...

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