We lost civil rights icons. They lost friends.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, Xernona Clayton and Andrew Young are some of the last remaining members of a generation of civil rights activists who reshaped the US and challenged their country to become a genuine multiracial democracy.
But they are also survivors who have witnessed some of their closest friends in the movement die during a sobering stretch over the past year.
“They’re still a few of us around, but not really many,” says Young, who was one of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s most trusted advisers. “When a few of us get together we always start with the song, ‘By and by, when the morning comes. All of the saints of God will gather home. We’ll tell the story of how we’ve overcome, and we’ll understand it better by and by.’”
The three icons can’t help but be reflective for another reason. As the nation marks the one-year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, these leaders are taking stock of how Floyd’s death has transformed America – and how so much change is still needed.
In recent interviews with CNN’s Suzanne Malveaux, the three offered their perspectives on Floyd’s death and addressed a new generation of activists who may be dismayed that more progress hasn’t been made since last year.
But given their personal losses, the conversations also drifted into other topics: Their memories of their departed friends, how they approach their own mortality and why they’re still hopeful about the future.
Andrew Young: ‘Freedom is a constant struggle’
A remarkable moment occurred when Young, the former US ambassador to the United Nations, was being interviewed by CNN about his civil rights activism and its connection to Floyd’s death.
Young, 89, was chatting about the links between the Floyd protests and his time with King when he recalled a stark warning that the civil rights leader used to deliver to his closest aides: Most of us are probably not going to make it past 40.
“He didn’t make it to 40. He made it to 39,” Young says about King. “Some of the rest of us who made it are obligated to keep on trying. There is no giving up, no giving in, no retirement because we’ve come too far from where we started from. And nobody told us that the way would be easy, but I don’t believe he brought us this far to leave us…”
Young couldn’t finish the thought, though. He stopped speaking in mid-sentence, closed his eyes, and turned away from the camera. He was about to cry.
It’s hard not to get emotional given Young’s experience. He’s seen the best and worst of America.
He was viciously beaten by racist thugs in 1964 in St. Augustine, Florida during a march for racial justice. A White mob pelted him with rocks and cherry bombs during another demonstration in Chicago two years later. And he was with King in 1968 when the civil rights leader was assassinated in Memphis.
But Young also became the first African American ambassador to the United Nations. He helped draft two epic civil rights laws: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And he saw the state of Georgia turn blue during last year’s presidential election and deliver control of Congress to the Democratic Party by electing a Black man and a Jewish man to the US Senate.
To those activists who may be disenchanted that more hasn’t changed since Floyd’s death, Young said his generation always knew that their work was a long grind.
“Freedom is a constant struggle,” he says.
Young says Floyd won’t be forgotten.
“I would say to these young people, we’re not ever going to be able to get George Floyd out of our systems, as we will never forget Martin Luther King or John Lewis. And we shouldn’t. ”
When asked about police brutality against people of color and other forms of racial violence, Young says racism persists because it’s built on a lie.
“Our country has been founded on the myth that Black people are inferior,” he says. “And everybody White is taught to believe that.”
Young points out that enslaved Black people helped build this country.
“Nobody coming from Europe as an indentured servant knew anything about agriculture or hunting,” he says. “They were picked up off the streets of London and brought here and just dumped. And if it hadn’t been for the skills of the Black people and then Native Americans, nobody could have survived.”
Thinking of the friends he’s lost, Young says activists like Lewis and Vivian decided they were “willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause.” He made the same decision, and he has no regrets. He says facing the mob in Florida was more important to him than receiving a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“I can’t think of a happier life,” Young says.” “I can’t imagine anybody that had a better life than I had.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson: ‘It gets lonesome’
One of the most enduring images to come from last year’s summer of protest was the racial makeup of the crowds. Many of the protesters were White, and they stood shoulder to shoulder with people of color, taking rubber bullets to the face and swallowing tear gas to protest racial injustice.
They were in essence a mini-Rainbow Coalition.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson helped popularize that term to describe the multiracial America he envisioned. His Rainbow Coalition, which included Blacks, Whites, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans and LGBTQ people, helped pave the way for a more progressive Democratic Party.
“Our flag is red, white and blue, but our nation is a rainbow – red, yellow, brown, Black and White – and we’re all precious in God’s sight,” Jackson once said.
Jackson, 79, saw a new form of his coalition take to the streets last summer, but he says today there’s more work to do. He experienced a measure of satisfaction when Derek Chauvin, a White police officer, was found guilty last month of murdering Floyd.
“I felt good, but I knew it was limited because it was a first down and not a touchdown,” Jackson says.
Jackson says he still can’t get the video of Floyd’s death out of his mind.
“It touched me when it happened in real time, because I could see him begging to live. Begging to live. Let me breathe. They had a knee on his neck and the other two (officers) just standing there,” he says. “Can you imagine if that had been a Black policeman on a White man’s neck? You can bet the nation would have been turned upside down.”
Jackson, who is suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, responds quickly when asked what lessons contemporary activists can learn from his generation.
“Mass coalitions. Multi-racial, Multi-cultural coalitions,” he says.
Jackson says people can’t give into paralyzing cynicism because they think change isn’t happening fast enough.
“We cannot give up the country, we cannot let darkness cast shadow on our light. We must see our way through this,” he says. “Racism is unscientific. There’s no science for a superior race or inferior race.”
The light is dimming on the generation that Jackson helped lead. Many of his friends and colleagues have died.
“It gets lonesome,” he says when asked about their passing. He thinks about King often.
“I miss him very much,” Jackson says.
But he also feels pride, not just sadness, when he thinks about friends like Lewis and Vivian – “a generation that made things happen,” he says. “Brought light where there was darkness. Hope where there was despair. We’re a new America today.”
When asked how he’d like to be remembered, Jackson says:
“Never stopped fighting. Never stopped trying.”
Xernona Clayton: ‘They left their mark here. Follow their lead’
Commentators often freeze-frame King as a solemn, Mount Rushmore-like figure who seemed almost superhuman at times.
But Xernona Clayton was one of the few people who saw another side of King. And she, along with some mischievous friends, were able to summon that unguarded side of King in a moment that was caught on film.
King had just finished a meeting with a group of civil rights leaders when a group of his friends surrounded him and began to sing happy birthday.
Clayton, who was a close friend of King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, then presented him with a gag gift – a tin cup that people could drop coins and bills in to help fight poverty.
King looked at Clayton, threw his head back and roared with laughter – a deep, rumbling laugh that echoed through the room. It’s shocking to see King look so happy and relaxed. The surprise birthday party came four months before his assassination.
Clayton, 90, says they were trying to lighten the load for King, who had been abandoned by many allies in the final year of his life over his opposition to the Vietnam War.
“We couldn’t get laughter out of him for any purpose,” Clayton says. “It was Jesse and Andy. They said Xernona’s the one who could change this.”
Clayton worked with King at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization he co-founded, and traveled extensively with him and his wife. After King’s death, she helped desegregate hospitals in Atlanta and once persuaded a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan to denounce the Klan.
She also was one of King’s closest confidants during the last years of his life when he was losing popularity and donors stopped giving to the SCLC.
“His world changed,” she said in another recent interview. “His friends left him. The money dried up. And he was so disappointed. So disappointed,” she said during a recent interview. “…He would just bare his soul to me. And I’m walking around today with some of his secrets. Because some things he didn’t want known about him: how disappointed he was that the world just turned against him. I always say now that the man died from a broken heart.”
Clayton was also a woman in a movement that didn’t typically welcome women as leaders. When she watches the Floyd protests she notices the many women leaders and demonstrators of different races. The Black Lives Matter movement, for example, was founded by women.
“And so with the Black Lives Matter movement, you saw them from the beginning – more women than we ever had … and Whites in great numbers,” she says. “Didn’t matter who you were, what you looked like. We got a problem in America. Let’s see if we can help do something about it. So I give them lots of credit. I really do.”
But she’s dismayed that a new generation is fighting some of the same battles her generation fought. Her home state of Georgia is one of many that have passed new voting laws that will make it harder for people of color to vote.
“We get one thing solved and you realize you got to go back and do it again,” she says. “We don’t have the commitment in America yet where all of us should be treated equally and fairly.”
Like Jackson and Young, she’s also grieving the loss of old friends. She was close to Lewis and Vivian, two legendary civil right leaders. She says the two men were special – devoted to the cause – even when the cameras weren’t rolling.
It’s a message she tries to share with kids who see Lewis and others as larger-than-life figures.
“They left their mark here,” she tells them. “Follow their lead.”
She also tells them that Lewis didn’t need a public relations firm to inflate his exploits.
“That was the real John Lewis. That was a man who walked this earth,” she says.
When the talk turns to her legacy, Clayton says she can’t believe her good fortune.
“I’m so blessed,” she says. “I can’t thank the good Lord enough. I know he’s tired of me thanking him.”