Civil rights icon Xernona Clayton’s unlikely friendship with a KKK Grand Dragon

When Calvin Craig left the Ku Klux Klan, he credited Clayton for changing his mind. Four decades later, Craig’s daughter and Clayton discuss their shared past.

This article originally appeared in our May 2011 issue.

Xernona Clayton and Gail Mayes in February 2011

Photograph by Neda Abghari

When Xernona Clayton moved to Atlanta in 1965, she accepted a position at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, working side by side with Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement. In 1967 she became the first African American in the Southeast to have her own television program, The Xernona Clayton Show, which aired on WAGA-TV (then the CBS affiliate in Atlanta). In the 1970s, Clayton joined Turner Broadcasting System, where she spent thirty years as a corporate executive. While at Turner, Clayton founded the Trumpet Awards, an annual event that recognizes accomplishments of African Americans in all walks of life.

But perhaps the most remarkable chapter in Xernona Clayton’s life was her influence on Calvin Craig, a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. Craig was an Atlanta heavy-equipment operator who for most of the 1960s had been a strong advocate for racial segregation and a leader of Klan rallies and cross burnings.

Clayton and Craig got to know each other when they both became involved in the Model Cities program in 1967. They built an unusual relationship based on daily debates about their differing views on race and society. Surprising everyone, Craig resigned from the Klan in 1968, denouncing the organization and crediting Clayton for his conversion.

In May 2010, the phone rang in the Trumpet Foundation’s office. The caller was Gail Craig Mayes, the daughter of Calvin Craig. Mayes, who was then living in the Washington, D.C., area, told Clayton that she wanted to see her. They agreed to meet.

“I felt speechless, and that’s difficult for me, to be speechless,” said Clayton. “What was odd is that just two weeks prior to that, the thought of her just flashed in my mind for no particular reason. I wondered whatever happened to the [Craig] children.”

In February, Clayton and Mayes sat down with Atlanta magazine to share their personal story of racial reconciliation and what it was like to reconnect forty-three years after Mayes’s father resigned from the KKK.

Xernona Clayton: I asked Gail, “What was the compelling reason that you had to meet me?” She said, “I came here especially to thank you, because you healed my father and cleansed our family.” Well, I nearly collapsed, I was so overtaken by those words. And then my mind went back to the years when she was little. I used to say to her father, “I’m concerned about these children, and especially this little girl. You’re transmitting this bigotry and hatred. I just hope she’ll grow up to be healthy, happy, sound, and grounded.”

Gail Mayes: I had been thinking about calling Xernona. I know that I had met you when I was a child, but I don’t really remember that much. What I did know is that it was really huge for my father to be out of the Klan, and I know that he credited you with that. He was just making all these changes, and I really saw it as healing for him and for our family.

For years Mayes was reluctant to talk about her father and her family’s association with the Klan. But after her father’s 1998 death, Mayes began to look differently at her family’s past.
Mayes: I realized this is the story of love, a resurrection story of how love really heals. So that’s what really brought me down here to see you. It was just such a powerful moment. She opened the door, and we just held each other and cried. It was a really happy, joyful kind of crying, but there was also sadness.

The sadness went back to Mayes’s childhood. Born in 1952, she remembered her father joining the Klan when she was about five years old.
Mayes: My grandmother—my father’s mother—was in the Klan, and she invited my mother to join the Klan. So my mother went into the Klan first, and then my father. It was all around the same time. I was five when he first told me. He brought me his robe, those green robes of the Grand Dragon, and he showed it to me. He talked to me a little bit about the Klan, but the main thing was the secrets. I should never tell anyone. I didn’t really understand it at that point, but after many years of going to Klan rallies and cross burnings every week—

Clayton: That’s what bothered me. They’d dress these kids to go to the rallies.

Mayes: No, not me. My brother was fifteen years younger than I was, and as soon as he was born, they made a robe for him. It was not long after that when my father got out of the Klan, though. By then I hated the Klan.

In 1967 Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. appointed Clayton as community affairs director for the Model Cities program. She worked with five communities, and each community had a chair. The mayor, however, cautioned Clayton that the chair of one of those communities was a Grand Dragon of the KKK.
Clayton: The mayor said, “I don’t know how you’re all going to get along.” I said, “Well, I won’t run away from people.”

On the night of the first meeting, Clayton noticed that one man did not fully shake her hand.
Clayton: He gave me just the little fingertips of a handshake, and I said to myself, “He must be the one.” But it wasn’t until the next day that he came by my office and said he was Calvin Craig. “Calvin Craig, now are you the one who heads the Klan?” He laughed and said, “Oh, Mrs. Clayton.” I could tell from that first meeting that he was a warm man; he was a very tall, handsome man, a well-attired man, and he had such a good sense of humor. Every day he would come by and make it his business to get into a discussion with me about race. Every time I asked him a question he didn’t want to answer, he just laughed . . .

One Friday he asked me what I was going to do that weekend. I said, “I’m having a dinner party this weekend, so I’ve got to get ready.” He asked who was coming. I named people who were coming for dinner, and he said, “Those are white people.” “Yes.” “You mean they’re coming to your house to eat?” I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Oh, Mrs. Clayton, I could never eat at your house.” “Well, Mr. Craig, people who come into my house have been invited. I haven’t invited you to my home. But before this project is over, I’ll not only have you eating at my house, I’ll have you eating out of my hand.” I will never forget that laughter.

Clayton found Craig to be perplexing. He would go to church twice a week, but he also wouldn’t miss his Klan nights.
Clayton: I said, “They are diametrically opposed to each other—going to church, standing there at the congregation speaking obviously with the spirit of Christ who loved us all, and that underneath the skin we’re all the same. And here you are practicing bigotry, and you have children along with you. I don’t understand it.” I’d give him my spiel, and he would just laugh all through it.

Mayes remembered her father coming home and talking about his new Model Cities colleague.
Clayton: How did he refer to me, as the “colored girl”?

Mayes: No, no, no. He always referred to you as Mrs. Clayton. He had respect for you.

Clayton: I could never get him to call me Xernona, ever. He was always respectful. I mean, he acted so gentlemanly, and we would have such laughter. And I asked, “Why do you keep coming here? You and I don’t agree on anything.” He said, “Ha, ha. Oh, Mrs. Clayton, you’re fun to talk to.”

I did want to change his attitude, because I was listening to Dr. King preach, saying that you’ve got to change a man’s heart before you can change his behavior. I never forgot that.

One Friday they started talking about what they would be doing that weekend, as was the norm.
Clayton: He said, “Well, I’ve got a secret to share with you.” “What is it?” “Well, I can’t tell you because you might tell somebody.” “Well, how are you going to share it with me without telling me?” “Well, it’s a secret.”

That weekend, Craig held a press conference at his home and announced that he was leaving the KKK.
Clayton: I didn’t see him until Monday, and I said, “Boy, you did have a surprise over the weekend.” And he laughed and laughed. “What do you think of that?” I didn’t really know how to take it.

Mayes remembered that at the press conference, her father credited Clayton for his decision to get out of the Klan.
Mayes: It was at our home. We were living in Sylvan Hills at that time. I do remember him talking that it wasn’t what he believed in anymore, that he saw things in a different way, and that he wanted to get out of the Klan.

It was a modest home, and the press was looking around, and they decided they wanted him to hold up his robe in front of my bulletin board. Even though I was so happy that he was getting out of the Klan, I mean it was a joyful day, it was just stressful having the press there and not knowing what they were going to say. But I was happy; my mom was very happy that day, too.

He changed as a person. I mean, he was always laughing, he always had that sense of humor. But there were many years that he was so angry. I mean, the anger was very intense. And that was the main change I saw—he was more at peace.

Clayton: What was so interesting is that after that, mail came in from everywhere, all over the world. There were sacks of mail. The Craigs had an unlisted number, so nobody had their address and phone number. So all the mail went to City Hall to the mayor’s office, and the mayor would call me and say, “Mrs. Clayton, we don’t know how to get in touch with Mr. Craig, but we know how to get in touch with you, so we’ve got some mail for you.” They would send the mail to my office. Mayor Allen made a speech and said, “Only in Atlanta could the contact to a Klansman be through a black woman.”

At one point, Craig asked Clayton whether she could introduce him to Martin Luther King Jr. When Clayton asked King, he was taken aback, then finally agreed.
Clayton: He used to say about me all the time, “Xernona can do everything.” So when this story came out, he said, “Well, by George, you finally did everything.” Martin agreed to meet, and we set a date, either April 19 or 22 when he would be back in Atlanta.

King was headed to Memphis to support the sanitation workers’ strike. During that trip, King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
Clayton: Calvin Craig came up to Mrs. King’s house the night of his death. He didn’t come to the door; he just was in the yard. Everybody knew who he was, and they sent a message to Mrs. King that Calvin Craig was outside. She said, “Well, is he coming in? He’s welcome to come in.” But he didn’t want to come in. He just wanted to stand on the grounds and just be there.

As the years went by, the friendship between Clayton and Craig became more distant.
Clayton: We stayed in touch for a while. He would call me or I’d call him just to ask how [he was] doing. And then he got sick, and I lost touch. I did invite him to something I was doing, and he said, “Mrs. Clayton, you know I don’t get out very much.”

Mayes: He was getting older.

Clayton: And so he said, “Would you be mad at me if I said no?” “Oh no, you don’t have to come; I’m just inviting you.” I wanted him there just because I liked him.

Calvin Craig passed away in April 1998. The headline on the New York Times obituary read: “Calvin F. Craig, Enigma in Klan and Civil Rights Work.” Clayton found out about his death on the day of his funeral. She called Craig’s home. Gail Mayes answered the phone and passed it on to her mother.
Clayton: She came on the phone, and I said I had just found out. “I’m sorry I’m just calling. Had I known about the funeral, I would have been there whether I would’ve been welcomed or not.” She said, “Xernona, you would have been welcomed. My husband loved you. I love you. My family loves you. You would’ve been welcomed.” That made me feel so good, and Gail has said to me during our conversations that he often spoke of me in loving terms.

Mayes: Oh, absolutely, absolutely.

When Mayes called last May, Clayton said all those memories resurfaced.
Clayton: I really liked that he changed, and I feel so joyful that I had anything to do with that. And so now to have Gail come into my life, I feel a link to that good feeling that I had with him. And to have her say to me how I cleansed him, it is sometimes more than I can handle. I am so imbued with the spirit that we’ve got to help people get rid of bigotry and hatred and racial misunderstanding. As human beings, we really have to figure ways to come together. And I’m honored by her very presence that whatever brought her to this need to meet me, makes me feel good.

Mayes (overcome with emotion): You talk. I can’t talk. I just feel so close to you. It’s just been a blessing. I feel so honored to be your friend, and I just love that we can laugh and talk. I love you.

Photograph by Neda Abghari