Xerona Clayton: Honoring Unsung Heroes

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TV One in March will telecast the 15th annual Trumpet Awards, which highlight African-American accomplishments and contributions in such diverse fields as law, religion, public affairs, politics, sports and entertainment. Civil Rights activist and longtime Turner Broadcasting System executive Xerona Clayton, the founder and CEO of the Trumpet Awards Foundation, spoke with Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about the influence and appeal of the awards on American culture and their future. Clayton, who in the 1960’s worked closely with civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference civil rights organization, also reflected on race relations in America. An edited transcript follows:

MCN: Why did you start the Trumpet Awards in 1992?

Xerona Clayton: I wanted very much to tell the stories and accomplishments of African-Americans that people don’t know about or don’t hear. For too long we’ve had a cover over our eyes about the contributions to this country from African-Americans. We as African-Americans have had such an uphill climb and fight because of racism, but many people don’t see that or know that.

I was with Dr. King when he said, 'Be willing to stand up not because it will be popular or unpopular, but because it’s right.’ Men like [Trumpet Awards honorees Dr. Tommie Smith and Dr. John Carlos, who raised their fists to symbolize black power and unity during the 1968 Summer Olympics] were examples of that. They stood up because they thought it was the right thing to do. They stood on that platform and said everything is not wonderful in America, and that took great courage. They were vilified for it, but it took great courage.

So with the Trumpet Awards we’re trying to tell those stories that have been omitted — all the stories of African-American contributions. Dr. King said the first step to loving everybody is to first know about each other. So we plan to get people to know about the contributions of African-Americans in positive way.

MCN: Fifteen years later, have you been able to accomplish your goals?

XC: Yes, far more than I ever imagined. We have [educators] that understand that this is not a traditional television awards show. This is a program that’s educating and lifting the veil of ignorance. The show also recognizes the efforts of non-African-Americans of good will as well. This is an all-inclusive society, and the show reflects that.

MCN: Why did you decide to take the show from its Atlanta birthplace to Las Vegas this year?

XC: We were invited there. We went from 1,800 in the audience to 3,000, so it just shows you how many more people are interested in the program. It’s an exciting city and it just makes our show that much more exciting.

MCN: Do you ever foresee a point in the future where there won’t be a need for the Trumpet Awards?

XC: I’d like to think so. But there was a time when I thought we weren’t going to have any problems living in an America where all of us could enjoy the promise of America, and that hasn’t happened yet. Maybe we’re not going to get it right. I don’t want to be a pessimist — I want to be optimistic about what’s going to happen to us as a people; but the longer I live, the more it seems that we’re digressing rather than progressing. It makes you lose that real spirit of optimism. But I don’t want to lose it. I just keep hoping. Dr. King said one day we’ll get it right.

MCN: Are you working on any other projects?

XC: I have a project in Atlanta called the Civil Rights Walk of Fame. I have taken the real shoes of real people, imbedded them into granite. I now have on a sidewalk in Atlanta the footsteps of Medgar Evers, Rosa Parks, President Johnson, President Clinton, President Carter, Thurgood Marshall...the list goes on and on. Next month we’re going to induct Tony Bennett, Joe Lewis, [Virginia] Gov. Douglas Wilder. I have enough room for 670 footprints, and it won’t be long before we fill it up.