COLUMBIA — Xernona Clayton looked out on a packed ballroom and said her friend Martin Luther King Jr. would have been pleased.
“If he were here, he’d be happy, seeing blacks and whites today, going to school together, learning together,” Clayton said, gesturing toward the diverse crowd.
Clayton spoke Monday in the Kimball Ballroom at Stephens College about her experiences with King. Clayton’s speech was part of a daylong program held at Stephens College to celebrate and commemorate the birthday of King.
Clayton knew King personally, both as a family friend and as a fellow activist.
“I remember I lived, worked and loved a man who practiced what he preached,” Clayton said.
King was a stout believer in nonviolence and never showed any signs of retaliation, she said. Once, a man came up to him and asked him if he was King. When King answered affirmatively, the man spat in his face.
“I was new to the nonviolence movement, so I got ready,” Clayton said. “He told me, ‘You gonna have to get used to being nonviolent; you’re too little to hurt anybody.’"
King once told Clayton the hardest thing he ever did was tell his 12-year-old daughter she couldn’t go to Funtown.
“He preached against color, and now he’s got to tell her because she’s black, she can’t go,” Clayton said. “That’s hard.”
She said some people think King lived and died to bring equality to black people, but that this isn’t the case. She said he believed in freedom for all.
“He didn’t separate; he didn’t isolate,” Clayton said.
She said King’s message of accepting all people no matter what it is that makes them different will always be relevant. To illustrate, she tied in President Barack Obama’s re-election.
She recalled a little more than four years ago, white women leaving their jobs to campaign for a black president, poor people donating quarters to the cause and young people volunteering their time.
“(King) said years ago if and until people of all persuasions get together, we’ll never win this fight for equality,” Clayton said. “We have to do it together."
Yvonne Chamberlain, director of diversity for Stephens College, said Clayton presented her story in a way the students could absorb. Timetria Murphy, a senior at Stephens College confirmed Chamberlain’s assessment.
“I liked the fact that she was really personable, used her own life, wasn’t about notes, just spoke from her own heart,” Murphy said.
Supervising editor is Karen Miller.