Speaking of Hope
A conversation between two women, across two generations, who demonstrate the power of coming together. They had never met one another—until now.
Xernona Clayton (left) is an 86-year-old civil rights legend and pioneer; Tarriona “Tank” Ball is an up-and-coming singer-songwriter.
Tank performs her spoken-word piece, “Come Together.”
We introduced Clayton and Tank at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, for the latest in a long line of conversations that Clayton has held within these walls, as the hotel celebrates its 50th anniversary.
The two women are, in one sense, a study in contrasts: Clayton, an octogenarian, dresses in formal garb, worthy of an evening soiree; Tank, in her 20s, wears a casual sweatshirt with “Books” emblazoned across the front. Yet it doesn’t take long for them to develop a bond.
The elder civil rights leader moves the young artist to tears as she recounts how, at the very hotel in which they’re situated, she planned the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s 10th anniversary convention. She had just suffered the most humiliating of rejections at their intended venue. As she tells it, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., complained to the manager, who was white, about the subpar service they were receiving, the manager snapped back: “You’re the problem. We don’t like your coming here. You’re the problem.”
The Hyatt Regency Atlanta, at the time, was still under construction. They spotted it as they walked out that day, and it seemed to offer an invitation. As they peered up at the unfinished building, she and her colleagues discussed that they would “have to consider this a hotel of hope.”
Clayton shares with Tank the story of planning the 1967 Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s 10th anniversary convention at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta.
“The timing was right for the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, because we were looking for a friendly place,” said Clayton. “Everybody was welcome. And then more places like that started to pop up. That’s when the city finally started to change.” Over the past 50 years, she added, the hotel has held true to the vision: It has always been a place where all are welcome, where groups consistently come together; it is the hotel of hope.
Planning the 1967 convention was hardly the first time Clayton had to overcome adversity. She has often faced situations thorny and seemingly insurmountable enough to make the average person promptly walk in the other direction. In these moments, she always, to borrow a phrase of the moment, persists. Here, in a series of vignettes, we offer a glimpse into her indomitable spirit—and in conversation with Tank, she shares how she is able to find, regardless of the degree of challenge she may face, hope.
Tennessee State University, 1940s
“The Rude Awakening Comes”
On their way back to the dorms after a night out, Clayton and five friends decided to get hamburgers. When they walked inside the restaurant, they noticed the manager standing alone behind the counter, a scowl on his face. At the time, Clayton figured he’d had a long day, but when he pulled out a butcher knife, the longest she had seen, she realized she was wrong.
He started waving the knife around, threatening them. They left immediately, fearing for their safety. No one was harmed, but the experience changed her forever. Clayton had grown up in a segregated town, but had always seen white officials turning to her father, who was black, for advice. This decidedly violent form of racism was new to her. “It just burns the very soul of your heart,” she told Tank. “The rude awakening comes. What it did for me, it prepared me for my future work—that you've got to help change your society.”
Los Angeles, California, 1962
“Each of Us Can Do Something”
Clayton often listened to the radio as she was falling asleep. One night, President John F. Kennedy spoke about high-school dropout rates, and how much it disappointed him that the rates were rising. She could just see him pointing at her as he said, "You can help. You can do something.” In the morning, she called the principal of nearby Jordan High School, and within days she was working with 100 teen dropouts. She brought 82 of them to back into the school system over the following months.
News of her success made it the White House, and President Kennedy called to thank her. He invited her to Washington, D.C., but was assassinated before they could meet. Jacqueline Kennedy later wrote to say how much the work meant to her late husband, and the two women met for tea at Kennedy’s New York City home. “Each of us can do something—there's always something to do,” Clayton said. “All we need to do is make the commitment to do it.”
Washington, D.C., 1966
“Oh, Miss Clayton”
As of 1966, black doctors were not allowed to practice in Atlanta’s private hospitals, even though the hospitals received government funding. Clayton formed a committee of doctors and wrote to President Lyndon B. Johnson to appeal for his help in changing the policy. Johnson didn’t respond, so the group went to Washington, D.C., and held a press conference on the steps of Congress. “We had everybody there. It was very, very successful,” Clayton said.
Feeling momentum, she called the White House and said their group wasn’t leaving Washington until they saw the president. It was an empty threat—they had actually planned to go to dinner and leave the next day—but less than 30 minutes later, her phone rang. The White House was on the other end. Less than an hour later, they were meeting with the president. Clayton told him, bluntly, “I was disappointed in you, because Martin Luther King just thought you were the cat's meow, you were just so special, and you were a right-thinking man. And I can't say that, because you didn't even answer my letter, you didn't care.” She remembers him looking at her and saying simply, “Oh, Miss Clayton.” Shortly after, Johnson issued an edict that all the hospitals in the United States, not just Atlanta, must be desegregated.
Atlanta, Georgia, 1968
“The Power of Just Being Patient”
As the leader of Atlanta’s Model Cities Program, which aimed to improve life in desegregated neighborhoods, Clayton started working in an area where many members of the Klu Klux Klan lived. That brought her face-to-face with a leader of the local chapter. Rather than approach him with distrust, she opted for respect. Their first conversation turned into daily exchanges.
“I had to show him with my thinking how we differed,” she explained to Tank. “I challenged him as a Christian and as a parent, but never made him feel less than.” After several months of meeting with Clayton, he called a press conference and—to her surprise—he denounced the Klan, condemning its activities and crediting her with changing his attitude. “He ended up calling me his best friend,” she said. “It’s the power of just being patient.”
Kumasi, Ghana, 2010
“So I Built a School”
In 2010, a group of journalists invited Clayton to Tunisia to accept an award. It was her first trip to Africa. While she was there, a chief from Ghana asked if she would build a school in his community. What she thought he was asking for was an additional school—not their first. Yet when she arrived at the airport, in the middle of what would normally be a school day, a group of about 50 children greeted her. She was perplexed: Why weren’t they in school? That’s when she learned there were no schools in the area.
She immediately agreed to raise the funds to build a school. But then she discovered the community didn’t have running water. They couldn’t have running water because they had no electricity. Clayton being Clayton, not only does the community now have a school—the region now has electricity, and because of that, 11,000 people now have running water in their homes. A colleague in the U.S. once asked her why she felt she had to build the school in Africa. “I didn't go to Africa to build a school,” she said bluntly. “I was in Africa, and there was a need for a school. So I built a school.”
These are a mere glimpse into the moments and memories that Clayton shared with Tank as they met for tea. Tank shared her experiences on stage, too, and discussed how she and her peers are attempting to build on the work of Clayton’s generation, to continue to bridge divides and build understanding. As Tank prepared to leave to rehearse her piece, “Come Together,” Clayton reflected on her legacy.
“My ability to have opened the minds of the world in which I operated—the eyes and the minds, and maybe the hearts of some—that was my greatest joy,” said Clayton. “Do good, be kind, be open. Whatever it is to be done, do it. Don’t hate. Find out how you can love. Be patient… I think I’ve practiced a lot of what I preach, and the pride comes in how many people I’ve changed.”❯