Xernona Clayton statue unveiled in downtown Atlanta plaza

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Mayor Dickens, others recognize civic leader on International Women’s Day.

There was a moment Wednesday when Xernona Clayton was speaking at a ceremony marking the unveiling of a statue in her likeness that the power went out.

She was right in the middle of one of her stories, hardly noticed the mishap, and kept going. Walking about the stage, continuing the story to anyone who could strain to listen.

To her side was the still-covered statue of her, by Colorado-based sculptor Ed Dwight, who also created the monument to Hank Aaron that now stands at Truist Park.

But in front of Clayton was the city of Atlanta that she moved to in the 1960s and helped build through her work in civil rights, community organizing, philanthropy and television.

ExploreWho is Xernona Clayton

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

“When Xernona came here in (in the mid-1960s) there was nothing here,” said former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young. “This city has been reborn by the citizens and energy that came out of the civil rights movement. And Xernona is part of that.”

Current Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens put it simply: “She has had a front-row seat to a good deal of what has happened in Atlanta.”

By the time the power returned, more than 300 people had crammed into the tiny Xernona Clayton Plaza, across from the Hyatt Regency Atlanta downtown, for the unveiling of the statue on International Women’s Day.

Dickens said Clayton is only the second woman to have a street and a plaza named for them in the city and the first Black woman to have a statue in downtown Atlanta.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

The Clayton statue is at the edge of the plaza, close to Peachtree Street, facing downtown Atlanta. The idea for a monument was hatched in 2021.

Clayton often begins working at 3 a.m. Rick Baker, a managing director at Merrill Lynch, and Mariela Romero, regional community empowerment director for Univision in Atlanta, approached Clayton at a 4 a.m. meeting about putting up a statue in Xernona Clayton Plaza, because their son didn’t know who she was.

“We felt that she had been overlooked and not gotten the recognition that she should have,” Baker said.

Baker and Romero put up the initial funding for the project from personal funds.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

On a brisk morning Wednesday, more than 20 people from the civil rights, business, entertainment and business communities stepped on stage to salute Clayton with short speeches.

Clayton, a native of Muskogee, Oklahoma, sometimes goes by the nickname “big,” but barely stands 5 feet tall.

Still, she has been a giant in Atlanta working closely with Coretta and Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement. She also worked with Ted Turner during the early days of Turner creating the Trumpet Awards in 1993, an annual program televised by the TBS network and distributed internationally to over 185 countries that honor the work and achievement of Black people.

Sitting in the front row, Clayton, 92, looked perfect as always. She was wearing a white suit, black blouse and shades, and smiled and clapped at the stories.

Every man who came on stage claimed to be Clayton’s boyfriend, a testament to not only her beauty but her ability to build coalitions and make people feel at ease.

Each tried to tell a more fantastic story to top their predecessor. But they were all upstaged by former Spelman College President Johnnetta Cole, who told the crowd that “Xernona is my girlfriend.”

Cole went on to call Clayton a “shero,” who led with courage, conviction and creativity. “She is a woman who exemplifies the African proverb, that says when women lead, streams run uphill,” Cole said.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

At the end of the nearly two-hour ceremony, Clayton, Dickens and members of the planning committee pulled the cord to reveal the statue.

Hugging Dwight, the sculptor, Clayton joked that she demanded the statue make her look younger and a combination of Halle Berry, Lena Horne and Coretta Scott King.

“If not, this might be the last thing you ever do,” Clayton said, noting that Dwight finished the statue with failing eyesight.

Standing at 8 feet tall, the statue shows Clayton in bronze with her arms wide open and her trademark tight bun atop her head. She is wearing a long white coat, reminiscent of a royal robe. She is smiling.

“This is a magnificent piece of artwork. It represents all the people who are here and not here. It represents Dr. King’s memory and all the people in my life,” Clayton said. “I can’t do enough for the city. I want my home to be peaceful and loving. And I will do anything I can to help make that a reality.”