A secret kept for a half century about a controversial future president’s gift to the new widow of a fallen civil rights icon seems improbable, but Xernona Clayton was there and is now telling the story.
The civil rights leader and King family friend says that she remembers everything about Richard Nixon’s visit with Coretta Scott King “as though it happened yesterday,” and now she is finally sharing the story.
It was about 48 hours after Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered on the evening of April 6 when the former vice president arrived at the modest King home in Atlanta in an unmarked car and with no press. Those were the conditions Clayton had established after Ralph McGill, the pioneering civil rights editor and publisher of the Atlanta Constitution, contacted her to say that Nixon wanted to pay his respects, stopping in Atlanta on his way to Key Biscayne, Florida, for the weekend. No fan of Nixon’s, McGill had nevertheless agreed to pass along the request.
Coretta Scott King was not eager to see Nixon so soon after her husband’s death, but she understood the sensitivity of the moment and she wanted to be above politics. Nixon arrived in the early evening and was escorted down a long hall to a back bedroom where Mrs. King received guests. She sat on the bed, propped up by pillows, and Nixon sat in a chair next to the bed in a meeting captured by a family photographer.
Nixon explained his wife, Pat, couldn’t be there because one of their daughters was ill, and she’d gone to be with her. Then, according to Clayton, he handed Mrs. King an envelope with a check for the children’s college education, saying, “This is from us—from me and Pat. I know the children are young. And you won’t be needing it for a while. But when you need it and want to use it, it will be there.”
Mrs. King thanked him, “and as I led him out, I thanked him,” Clayton told The Daily Beast. “I didn’t read the check, and I don’t know what happened afterwards. We had a place where we put things people gave to her.”
As to the check, Clayton says, “I never saw it again.”
She called McGill the next morning to report on the visit, and when she told him about the check, “He just laughed, he laughed hard, and he said, ‘He [Nixon] must have really wanted to score brownie points.’”
McGill never wrote about it, and the check as Clayton remembers it has been lost in the mists of time. It was never cashed, or the Nixon Library would have a record of it, and the aide who was with Nixon on what became two visits to Atlanta during that tumultuous time is disbelieving that Nixon, a reflexively suspicious politician, would hand a check to the widow of a man as divisive as King had become at the time of his death.
“It’s like I’m a hundred percent certain, he would never give her an envelope. There’s too much open to interpretation and wrong interpretation to do that,” Dwight Chapin told The Daily Beast. “I was a 27-year-old go-fer, but I was around him day and night.”
Except Chapin was not in the room when Nixon sat with Mrs. King. He says he saw him take her hand, and start talking. Then he left and, he says, talked on the screened-in front porch with the Kings’ young children until Nixon emerged about 15 minutes later.
Clayton is a trusted figure in the King orbit, and someone I and many others who covered civil rights or knew Dr. King can personally vouch for. She drove Dr. King to the airport on that fateful trip to Memphis that cost him his life, and she is featured in the new HBO documentary King in the Wilderness, which is based solely on interviews with people who knew him well.
It was after a screening of the film at the Museum of African American History that she first told the story of Nixon’s visit, and the check. “For a long time I didn’t tell the story, it was a private memory,” she explained. “But it’s not a new story to people who know me, I’ve told it before. Every time I say something it doesn’t make the news, I’m not famous.”
Nixon’s visit with Mrs. King was off the record, but that evening in Key Biscayne, Nixon wanted to know how it was playing. Chapin reminded him it was off the record. Nixon had expected news of the meeting would leak and was furious when told it had not. So Nick Ruhe, another Nixon aide, called Atlanta radio stations to tip them off that Nixon had been seen at the King home. But when reporters called the house, no one would confirm the visit.
Nixon had sought the private visit in part because he wanted to avoid attending the funeral, set for April 9 in Atlanta, Clayton recalled. Now he fumed, he would have to go. He and Chapin flew back to Atlanta the night before the funeral, staying at the Hyatt. When they pulled up the next day at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, thousands of people had gathered, and getting through the crowd looked daunting. But as Chapin recalls, people stepped aside to make room for Nixon, slowly clapping in a rhythmic and respectful way.
After the service, Wilt Chamberlain, the 7-foot-1 basketball star, asked Nixon if he would be marching to the graveside, and while Nixon had come with no intention of marching he was swept up in the crowd, along with the likes of Democratic Senator Eugene McCarthy, whose anti-war campaign had driven President Lyndon Johnson out of the presidential race. Nixon’s pal, Bebe Rebozo, who he’d stayed with in Key Biscayne, was also swept along, an unlikely presence given his right-wing politics.
This was an emotionally charged time. Cities were burning, anti-war sentiment was raging, and with King’s death, all eyes were on Atlanta. In the days after his murder, the King house was filled with family, friends, and “big names,” in Clayton’s telling, including Marlon Brando, Bill Cosby, Harry Belafonte, Jackie Kennedy, and Bobby and Ethel Kennedy.
“It was a madhouse really,” says Clayton. “That’s why she stayed in the back bedroom, the master bedroom,” which was at the end of a long hall. “It gave her a feeling of a little relief.”
A lot of people were coming and going, and Clayton remembers Nixon arriving in a beige car, a Chevrolet she thinks, while Chapin says they were in a black Cadillac.
After Nixon met with Mrs. King, he went to Martin Luther King Sr.’s house. “They threw their arms around each other,” says Chapin. “They’d known each other for years.” Daddy King, as he was known, was a lifelong Republican, initially endorsing Nixon over Jack Kennedy in 1960. (Nixon lost King Sr.’s support when he said “no comment” after King Jr. was jailed in Georgia on a bogus charge during a peaceful sit-in in October 1960. Kennedy intervened to free King, and he called Coretta, a call initially meant to be private because of the uncertain political fallout in the middle of the election. It of course leaked, bringing out the black vote and helping Kennedy.)
“I could imagine him asking King Sr. if there was a college fund for the kids,” says Chapin, “but for the life of me, I can’t believe this happened—Mr. Nixon handing Mrs. King a check.”
It is Clayton’s insistence on what she witnessed even after I challenged her with Chapin’s skepticism that made me want to explore this other side of Nixon’s character.
The King children were young in 1968. The oldest, Yolanda, born in 1955, attended Smith College. She died of a heart condition at age 51 in 2007. The two boys, Martin Luther King III and Dexter were born in 1957 and 1961, and attended Morehouse College, the historically black college their father and grandfather attended. The youngest, Bernice, was born in 1963 and transferred to Spelman in Atlanta after a year at Grinnell. College wasn’t as expensive then as it is now, and their educational choices didn’t break the bank.
“Each of the children got all kinds of offers from colleges,” says Clayton. She recalls some criticism that they were getting privileges they didn’t have to pay for. So whatever Nixon thought to contribute wouldn’t have mattered on the accounting side of the ledger.
Longtime Nixon speechwriter, Pat Buchanan, tells me how proud Nixon was of a personal letter from Dr. King thanking him for helping pass the 1957 Civil Rights Act. Nixon as vice president had worked behind the scenes in the Senate to ensure passage.
The two men had met in March of that year in Africa at a celebration for Ghana’s independence. They agreed to stay in touch, and three months later King met with Nixon in the vice president’s office at the Capitol to map strategy against Southern Democrats opposing the bill and Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to water it down.
“I will long remember the rich fellowship which we shared together and the fruitful discussion that we had,” King wrote, telling Nixon “how deeply grateful all people of goodwill are to you for your assiduous labor and dauntless courage in seeking to make the Civil Rights Bill a reality… This is certainly an expression of your devotion to the highest mandates of the moral law.”
Nixon replied saying, “My only regret is that I have been unable to do more than I have.” Jeffrey Frank, author of Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage, wrote that Nixon and King talked frequently after that, and in September 1958, after a deranged black woman stabbed King in Harlem, Nixon was among the first to write King, praising his “Christian spirit of tolerance” and expressing confidence he would ultimately win over “the great majority of Americans for the cause of equality and human dignity to which we are committed.”
Buchanan says Nixon was very proud of the fact that on his mother’s side of the family, the Milhauses, they had been a stop on the underground railroad in Indiana.
This is not the Nixon we associate with the Southern Strategy, which sought to win votes by exploiting fears along racial lines, or the uptight, paranoid Nixon who never seemed able to relate to another human being. After Chappaquiddick, when Sen. Ted Kennedy was at the White House for a bipartisan congressional leadership meeting, Buchanan, who was there taking notes, saw Nixon motion for Kennedy to follow him to the Oval Office after the meeting ended in the Cabinet Room.
Buchanan thinks Nixon gave Kennedy a pep talk that he had taken a hard hit but would recover and go on to accomplish great things. He wasn’t a sweetheart by any means, Buchanan says of Nixon, but at times, “he did have that paternal instinct.”
Chapin confirms the incident. He was the staff secretary and sat right by the Oval Office. “Nixon motioned to me, he said Kennedy’s coming into the Oval Office. No one else was there. Three or four minutes later, Sen. Kennedy is drying tears, and he then leaves. I have no idea what was said but something of impact happened.”
Chapin was the first Watergate figure to go on trial. He was convicted for making false and misleading statements to a Grand Jury and served nine months in a light security California correctional institute dubbed “Camp Cupcake.” He fought the conviction all the way to the Supreme Court.
“In my heart of hearts, I didn’t feel I lied. My intent was to tell the truth,” he told The Daily Beast. “Many years later, reading it [the transcript], I could see my maneuvering around not to answer the question.”
As for Clayton, now 87, she stands by her story and her long record of civil rights work.
“I resent the fact that they think I made it up,” she said. “There are still secrets I haven’t told, some I’ll probably die with.”
© Eleanor Clift All rights reserved.