Xernona Clayton drove MLK to the airport for his trip to Memphis, where he was later killed by an assassin

How Xernona Clayton made King over in death

Xernona Clayton has always been the King whisperer. 

Whether she was throwing a surprise birthday party for a reluctant Martin Luther King Jr. three months before his death or, without a cent to her name, trudging to a local dress shop to secure dresses for Coretta Scott King to wear for her husband’s funeral. 

It seemed fitting that it was Clayton, standing in front of King’s body at Spelman College’s Sisters Chapel, who was mixing a concoction. 

»MUSIC:  AJC Sepia Martin Luther King Jr. Spotify Playlist 

Xernona Clayton has been a long-time confidante and friend of Coretta and Martin Luther King Jr. She played a key role in being by Coretta’s side in the days following King’s assassination.
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/ccompton@ajc.com

»PHOTOS: Coretta Scott King through the years

Julie Robinson, the Jewish wife of Harry Belafonte, had given Clayton some of her powder foundation. So had King’s mother. 

As Coretta watched, Clayton carefully mixed Alberta King’s dark-toned powder with Belafonte’s light-toned powder to make a bronze. 

Harry Belafonte, who had quietly funded large portions of the Southern Christian Leadership Conferences’ work, carefully placed his handkerchief around King’s neck before Clayton applied the bronze results of her experiment. 

Coretta Scott King and Harry Belafonte grieve at the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s gravesite at South View Cemetery in Atlanta on April 9, 1968. DECLAN HAUN / CONTRIBUTED BY CHICAGO HISTORY MUSEUM
Photo: For the AJC

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Moments earlier, Coretta insisted that the large crowd waiting in the rain to see King’s body be allowed to come in. But Clayton whispered that Coretta should see him first,  before the crowd.

That was out of respect, but then Clayton was hit with the realization that King “looked awful.” 

“There was a big blob on his right cheek,” Clayton said later. “Red as the red clay of Georgia.” 

So she mixed and she made King over.  

Coretta was satisfied.

Read more about the role that Xernona Clayton played in the Kings’ lives in Honoring King, a special package about the last year of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life.

The March 21 documentary 'The Last Days of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.' on Channel 2 kicked off a countdown of remembrance across the combined platforms of Channel 2 and its partners, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB Radio. The three Atlanta news sources will release comprehensive multi-platform content until April 9, the anniversary of King’s funeral. On April 4, the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, the three properties will devote extensive live coverage to the memorials in Atlanta, Memphis and around the country. The project will present a living timeline in real time as it occurred on that day in 1968, right down to the time the fatal shot was fired that ended his life an hour later. The project will culminate on April 9 with coverage of the special processional in Atlanta marking the path of Dr. King’s funeral, which was watched by the world.

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