A singular voice of black empowerment, Clayton Riley, who began each day with Nina Simone’s “Wish I Knew How It would Feel to be Free” on his pre-dawn radio show, died Friday at the age of 73. When the city last faced possible economic collapse in the 1970s, he was a relentless and eloquent critic of the bankers and politicians then bent on rolling back the gains of the 60s.
Riley’s range as an actor, writer, radio host, producer, professor and activist over five decades established him as a city landmark — a unique truthteller and embodiment of African American outrage.
In addition to writing for the Voice, Riley’s work appeared in the Times, the Amsterdam News, Ebony, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, Crisis and the Liberator>. He collaborated with Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. on his 1980 autobiography, Daddy King, and edited a Black Quarter, a collection of plays by Ben Caldwell, Ronald Miner, Ed Bullins and Amiri Baraka (then known as LeRoi Jones).
His radio shows on WBAI, WLIB and elsewhere attracted a sizable progressive audience. He taught at Sarah Lawrence, Cornell, Fordham, and the New School, as well as serving as the master of ceremonies for The Langston Hughes Festival at City College for many years.
His acting credits included In White America and Dutchman, and he also helped produce Nothing But a Man, starring Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln. He was one of the founders of the Frank Silvera Writer’s Workshop, which developed the work of black playwrights.
In addition to his wife Joy, he is survived by his daughters Hagar and Grayson, brothers Mark and Norman Riley, sister Susan Riley, and his son-in-law Lewis Faberman, as well as nieces, nephews and grandchildren Lily and Luke Faberman. A wake will be held on October 29 at Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel, 1076 Madison Avenue at 81st from 3 to 5 and 6 to 8 p.m. The service will be on October 30 at 11:30 a.m. at the same chapel.