Charlayne Hunter-Gault has been breaking down barriers her entire life. As one of the first African American students to enroll at the University of Georgia in 1961 during a time of national turmoil and later as an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning journalist she has defied those who said she could not pursue her dreams.
genConnect.com recently sat down with journalist and author Charlayne Hunter-Gault at the Aspen Ideas Festival, where we discussed her role in the media and her life as a pioneer in the field of race relations.
“You have to understand that I wanted to be a journalists since I read Brenda Starr (the comic book character)” Hunter-Gault laughed during our conversation at the Aspen Institute. But to achieve that goal she first had to endure the trials and tribulations of prejudice during her collegiate years. Eventually she became an award-winning member of the team at “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” on PBS.
Hunter-Gault remains involved in journalism as a contributor to NPR and The New Yorker magazine. Today, she maintains a home in South Africa. “What makes it (South Africa) interesting” she notes in our interview “is that it is a laboratory, as America was a laboratory after Jim Crow. It is a laboratory to see if we can, in fact, form a more perfect union anywhere in the world.”
In 1992, Hunter-Gault wrote an autobiography called In My Place about her experiences as a student at the University at Georgia, but today she is revisiting her past to write a book at the urging of The New York Times. The book, geared toward young people looks at the struggle of African Americans in the 1960s. The task has proven illuminating but challenging. “As a journalist, I’ve always written in the third person. I’ve always reported on other people. So it’s always been difficult for me to talk about myself in the first person.”
No doubt her efforts will prove valuable. Watch:
The Inspiration to Tell Her Story
The New York Times and Roinbook Press came to me and asked me to do it. I have to confess that I’ve had some difficulty with it, not only because of the content and worrying about how these young people are going to react to this violence, but because, as a journalist, I’ve always written in the third person, I’ve always reported on other people. So it’s always been difficult for me to talk about myself in the first person. I wrote a book called In My Place which was my own auto biography, and even then, you know, the editor kept say “But how did you feel; what did you think?” and so that was the thing about this book.
My editor came back after the first draft and said, you know, all of this information is really, really good, but I want more of you in it. So I started in 1959 as a senior in high school, where I was running for queen of the school, I was editor of the newspaper, I was president of the honor society. And so I talked about the things that I think young people today would identify with. And then I made this sort of turn in the road where I, we made the decision to go to the University of Georgia. So I’m hoping that, and I think the editors are hoping that, as I weave my own story, I can bring in young people who can appreciate some of the same, or maybe having the same experiences. And then when I get to 1963, when Martin Luther King made his speech at the Washington Monument, during the Washington march, the “I Have a Dream.” I talk about how by this time I graduated I had my first job at the New Yorker. At that point I was aspiring, like everybody else, to write on the staff, but at that point I was typing rejection slips and getting coffee for the editors. We all watched the “I Have a Dream” speech together and I thought about again this dichotomy inside of me which was still a part of the movement in one sense but also I had realized my dream.
I think it was at that point that it crystallized for me that no matter where I went in my journalism I always had to carry the movement inside of me so I would look at how black people were portrayed in the media, or how people are portrayed generally, and that has been kind of the way I have done my journalism, whether I was in the Middle East, or whether I was in Somalia, or Haiti, or, you know, anywhere in the world I have tried to look at people and portray them in ways that are recognizable to themselves, and I think that all came out of the civil rights movement. And so I’m hoping I can convey some of that.
On Being Considered a Pioneer
I don’t think of myself as a pioneer. I wanted to be a journalist since I read about Brenda Starr in the comic books, and so it was a romantic idea. But in order to achieve that, according to the laws of the state at the time, I would have had to leave the state. They would – the white legislators and officials of the state – have paid me and other blacks who wanted to study something that black schools didn’t offer to go out of state to keep us out of their own schools.
My first objective was not to be a pioneer, but to get the education that would help me be Brenda Starr. So when I went there I wasn’t so naïve as to think that this was just some routine thing but part of me did want to think that. I was—by the time the court case wound through the courts and we were ordered in – I was nineteen. So part of me was still a teenager. When there was a riot outside of my dormitory and they were yelling “two-four-six-eight we don’t wanna integrate,” and threw a brick through the window, the thing that upset me the most was that the brick broke the window and shattered glass all over my clothes, which was still in the suitcase. And I think the entire time that I was at the University I was aware of being a part of a larger movement in a sense because all of my friends were in the sit-ins and freedom rides and other demonstrations. But part of me wanted to just be a normal student, so I was constantly negotiating those two spaces and actually I think I did it all right.
On Moving to South Africa
I have a long history with South Africa. From the days of apartheid, which were really horrendous, to Mandela’s release, and then the introduction of a multi-racial society in a black lead government, and while I went in previous years, in ’85 for the “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” and got acquainted with the country that way. When I went back in ’90 I went for the “NewsHour” interview Mandela to talk about his release from prison and his vision for the future.
Then I went back in ’97 to actually work for National Public Radio, which was establishing a bureau there. My husband Ronald was already there, he went there to establish JP Morgan Bank but we were going to commute, we felt that we have been married long enough that we can span the distance but that didn’t turn out to be the case. So as soon as I had an offer of something that I wanted to do, I happily accepted it. I worked for National Public Radio for a year covering Africa, at the end of which we got a Peabody Award, and then a year later, I went to CNN for about five years. And now I do part time for National Public Radio but also I do work for various others. I’ve got an article this week in the New Yorker Magazine on Jacob Zuma in South Africa. And, you know, what makes it interesting for me is that it is a laboratory as America was post Jim Crow. It’s a laboratory to see if we can in fact reach a more perfect union anywhere in the world.
On Teaching Younger Generations About Race in South Africa
I’m writing a book on the history of the civil rights movement for young readers and while it’s been a walk down memory lane, and whereas it ends in 1965 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act which was a monumental landmark piece of legislation in America, the walk was extremely painful because I’ve been away from that for so long and have moved to realize the dream we all wanted the Civil Rights Movement to produce for all of us.
When I walk back to 1960, ’61,’62,’63 there is so much violence we forget, I think, how much of a sacrifice the people – the young people in the Civil Rights Movement made to realize, or to help this country realize it’s promise. John Lewis, who is currently serving as a congressman in the House of Representatives, when he got ready to go on the freedom rides in 1961,’62, he and the others who went with him actually wrote out their wills.
There was a good reason for that because a few days – a few years later – when they had the voting rights summer in Mississippi, they call it the Cold Folks Summer or the Freedom Summer, and three young men Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner were murdered in the days, the forty-four days, in which they looked for them they found the bodies of eight or nine other people who had been murdered and just tossed aside. Because they were locals and nobody knew their names except neighbors and relatives, nobody cared that they were missing and nobody looked for them. So that was one of my concerns are these young people going to be turned off to this book because it’s got so much violence in it.
But then other young people, especially ones here at the Aspen Festival that I’ve discussed this with, said “no you have to tell them, you have to let young people know that we didn’t just arrive at this moment because we happily said we want to all be free, we want to all have equal opportunity. And it’s important to pass on to the next generation that they, as we used to say in the Civil Rights Movement, they keep on keeping on. ” Democracy is not perfect ideals, but, it’s a work in progress and you have to be vigilant and ever involved in helping it achieve its ideals because it’s fluid it’s a work in progress. That’s why I said South Africa is so interesting to me as well.
On Racism Today in America
What is very clear is that we’ve yet to reach any kind of “rainbow nation” in this country. You know I live in South Africa and they’re grappling with the same issues. But, no matter where you go in this country or at even an economic level you still are, in my case, often one of only two or three black people. My husband and I went to a party the other night. On the way he just sort of cheerfully said, was explaining to the person who was going with us, that there will be four blacks there we will be two of them. So it is not a criticism of our friends. It’s just a reality that we haven’t yet come to grips with. How do we bring in a more diverse circle, not only in activities like the Aspen Festival, but also in our personal lives.