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You’ve see her on the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour and heard her on NPR. But did you know she was an early civil rights pioneer? Charlayne Hunter-Gault joins Kojo to talk about her role as one of two students who fought to desegregate the University of Georgia and gain admission to the school. How her history as the school’s first black female student continues to shape her.
- Charlayne Hunter-Gault journalist (based in South Africa); and author of "To The Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement" (Roaring Brook / MacMillian Children's Publishing Group)
In this WSB newsfilm clip from November 21, 1969, Charlayne Hunter speaks to a reporter about her recent visit to the University of Georgia and her feelings about African American students on the campus in Athens, Georgia.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIYou have seen her on television for years, reporting for "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" or leading CNN's Africa bureau. You've heard her on the radio as NPR's special Africa correspondent, and you've seen her byline in the New Yorker magazine and The New York Times. But would you recognize her as the young college student who walked into the registrar's office of the University of Georgia in the year 1961, one of two students to integrate that all-white campus?
MR. KOJO NNAMDICharlayne Hunter-Gault's career as a journalist dates back to her days as editor of her high school newspaper. And her role as a civil rights pioneer began in high school, too, when the principal called on her to challenge segregation at Georgia's public university. Fifty years later, her days as a civil rights pioneer continue to shape her world view. She joins me to talk about her civil rights journey and the ongoing struggles for human rights today.
MR. KOJO NNAMDICharlayne Hunter-Gault is a foreign correspondent for NPR and author most recently of "To The Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement." She joins us from studios in Sarasota. Charlayne Hunter-Gault, thank you for joining us.
MS. CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULTThank you for having me again, Kojo, and good morning -- good afternoon, that is, to you and your listeners.
NNAMDIYou're more than welcome. Allow me to start by reading you the beginning of an article from The New York Times on Jan. 10, 1961. "Two negroes enrolled in the University of Georgia today after Gov. S. Ernest Vandiver Jr. had been enjoined from cutting off funds and forcing the school to close. Some 2,000 white students ringed the Academic Building while the two paid their tuition fees, thus completing registration and becoming full-fledged students at the university." You were 19 years old. What happened that day at the University of Georgia?
HUNTER-GAULTWell, it was a very busy day. Hamilton and I walked on to the campus with our escorts. Nobody with anything that could have protected us...
NNAMDIThat would be Hamilton Holmes.
HUNTER-GAULTYeah, Hamilton Holmes. We walked on with Vernon Jordan, whom you know now as one of the top business leaders in the country, and my mother.
HUNTER-GAULTWe had no security, and there were hundreds of students standing around, yelling really nasty things. And yet we kept our eye on the prize. We didn't pay any attention to all of that. We walked on and got ready to register. And halfway through the registration process, the judge, who had ordered us into the university, gave the state of Georgia -- whom we had sued and won -- a stay, and so we took time out at a nearby -- the home of a nearby family in Athens while another judge listened to our lawyer's appeal.
HUNTER-GAULTAnd the funny headline that came out was -- the judge who ordered us in was William Bootle, and the judge who took the appeal of the state was Albert Tuttle. So the headline in the paper the following day was Tuttle Boots Bootle. And that's how we got back and continued our registration and, for the next two years, matriculation at the University of Georgia.
NNAMDIYou mentioned Vernon Jordan and the fact that he is known today as a major business leader. What was he then?
HUNTER-GAULTA $35-a-week law clerk, if you can believe that.
HUNTER-GAULTAnd -- but a very -- you know, he had been most instrumental in unlocking one of the key proofs of the lies of separate and equal -- but equal. He went to the university every day during the court -- before the court case and went through hundreds of applications of white students to find one that was exactly like mine because, you know, in those days, Southern girls had to be protected. And so we were -- they told us that they couldn't admit me because I was -- had to stay on the campus and there were no rooms available.
HUNTER-GAULTSo he combed through all of these applications and finally found one. And I remember to this day, although I don't remember a lot these days, but I remember her name was Bebe Dobbs Brumby. And in those days, her family was very wealthy, and she was known as Bebe Dobbs Brumby of the Marietta Brumbys. And her -- Marietta, Ga., that is.
HUNTER-GAULTAnd our applications were identical. And so that was one of the unlocking keys that paved the way for us to attend the university.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Charlayne Hunter-Gault. Her latest book is called "To The Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement." If you have comments or questions for Charlayne Hunter-Gault, what would you like to ask her about her lesser-known role as a pioneer for desegregation? She's best known for her long career in journalism. If you have questions or comments, 800-433-8850 is the number to call. Or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIAs I mentioned, the book is called "To The Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement." And speaking of journey, Charlayne, I look at the cover of this book, and on the extreme left in the picture, I see a man who is better known as a political operative in Washington, D.C. But Ivanhoe Donaldson is prominently featured in this photograph.
HUNTER-GAULTNot only that. In the center of that picture, do you see a woman with a headscarf on?
HUNTER-GAULTThat's Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund.
NNAMDII thought that -- I told somebody. I said, this picture looks familiar. It's Marian Wright Edelman.
HUNTER-GAULTExactly. I thought it was. And I spoke at the University of South Carolina just after she had been there. And a friend of mine who had the book got her to say definitively it was her. And that takes me to, if you don't mind...
HUNTER-GAULT...the thing that you've asked me about my own personal experience, which I actually wrote about in my first book, "In My Place."
HUNTER-GAULTBut this is a book that opens the door on the wider story of all the young people who put their lives on the line to change the segregated South, including Ivanhoe Donaldson and Marion Wright Edelman and so many others. You know, when John Lewis, who's now...
NNAMDIThe congressman from Georgia, yes.
HUNTER-GAULTAdmirably for many years now in the Congress. John and a bunch of other students took off from Washington, D.C. on a trail -- on Trailways and Greyhound buses to desegregate interstate bus travel. And before they left, they signed their wills.
HUNTER-GAULTThey left wills because they weren't sure whether or not they would be killed because, as you may recall, in those days, the South was a vicious, violent place, and it did terrible things to people, including some of these young people. Fortunately, none of them were murdered, although some others were. Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner, you remember those.
HUNTER-GAULTBut, you know, the reason I wrote this book is to partly inspire this young generation, which doesn't know a lot about the civil rights movement according to studies that have been done by places like the Southern Poverty Law Center. And while we have seen, particularly in recent days with the young people getting in the streets to protest the Trayvon Martin case, we saw them turning out in 2008 to help forward -- move forward the political process.
HUNTER-GAULTAnd yet it's -- I think, every now and then, it would be inspiring to them to know that struggle is ennobling and that struggle can achieve good results and that, you know, our country, which is one of the greatest democracies on Earth -- but a democracy is a work in progress, and we need the vigilance of all of our people, especially the young people who will inherit, you know, running the country and making it what it could be. We're still not there yet.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Charlayne Hunter-Gault. Her latest is called "To The Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement." And speaking of democracy as a work in progress, we'll fast forward to the present because you now live part of the year in Johannesburg, South Africa, and Gene in Silver Spring, Md. on the phone has a question related to that. Gene, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GENEThank you, Kojo. And it's a privilege to speak with Charlayne. Charlayne, during your stint as a news correspondent in South Africa, you had the chance to witness some of the major changes that country underwent, whether they were political or economical. So, from your experience, how do you see the future of South Africa, let's say, in 10 or 20 years from now? And also, is there any parallel in how that country is evolving now in the way America did back in the '60s when it comes to race issues?
HUNTER-GAULTWell, I wish I had a crystal ball so that I could answer the first part of your question. I have no idea where it's going to be in 20 or 30 years. You know, in two years' time, South Africa will be a 20-year-old multiracial democracy. And like all of our democracies around the world, including this one in America, it takes time. South Africa is still undergoing baby steps to democracy, making some mistakes with a lot of challenges because, as you know, the country was repressed for so long by the white minority regime.
HUNTER-GAULTThe educational levels of blacks who are the majority but was very low, and they're still trying to repair that system. The economy was always in the hands of whites. They're trying to repair that system. The health system was always in the hands of whites. And so many South African black people are in need of good quality health care, which they're not getting. So the black-led new government inherited a legacy of separate and very unequal, and that also includes race.
HUNTER-GAULTAnd so you put all those things together, and, on the one hand, you marvel that the country is still functioning in many ways, growing a middle class, including some blacks, educating more people than in the past, but still with many major challenges. And one of my own challenges is to go back in my own history here in America and look at just how long it took this country to achieve some of the rights and equalities and prosperities that we have today.
HUNTER-GAULTI mean, you know, it was in 1954 after how many hundred, you know, years since emancipation that we had to revisit separate and unequal. So it takes time.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Gene. We've got to take a short break. When we come back, we will return to our conversation with Charlayne Hunter-Gault, author most recently of "To The Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Acclaimed journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault joins us from studios in Sarasota. She is foreign correspondent for NPR and author most recently of "To the Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement." Charlayne, during Freedom Summer in 1964, when white students from the North poured into Mississippi to register black voters -- you talked about that a little bit earlier in the deaths of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney -- you were working at The New Yorker. How did those events influence your own orientation and the topics you chose to write about?
HUNTER-GAULTWell, of course, you know, journalists are supposed to be -- and I'm going to use a word I hate -- objective.
NNAMDII know you hate that word.
HUNTER-GAULTYeah. You know, we are not computers, so how can we be objective? But we can be passionate, and I think that my preferred phrase is fair and balanced. And so, coming out of the civil rights movement and moving into journalism, I was informed by the time that I spent as the subject of news, but also by the time that those young people in the COFO Freedom Summer, the Confederation of Organizations working to enlist blacks into the voting rolls, put black -- get blacks registered to vote. And so I took that passion with me.
HUNTER-GAULTAnd although I couldn't march and protest and all of that, I could interpret, and I could also take what I learned as the subject of news. And I often saw people misrepresenting what I was about -- not a lot, but some of the media. And so when I was at The New Yorker, I tried to continue to give voice to the voiceless and to portray people in ways -- especially black people, but all people in ways that were recognizable to themselves because we, you know, even today, we still do a lot of stereotyping in the media.
HUNTER-GAULTAnd my -- I guess I've always been informed by my own experience as the subject of news and what I wanted to see. And so that's how I channeled my past experience as an activist into my work as a professional.
NNAMDIHere is Shawn in Laurel, Md. Shawn, you're on the air with Charlayne Hunter-Gault. Go ahead, please. Hi, Shawn. Are you there?
SHAWNYeah, I'm here. Can you hear me?
NNAMDIYes, we can.
SHAWNOh, thanks, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I really enjoy your show. And I wanted to say also thank you to Charlayne for her sacrifices to all colored people and people in general in America. My question is, what positive role did your white schoolmates or counterparts, so to speak, play to ease the tense environment, the uncomfortable environment you were when you were enrolled in the school?
NNAMDIYou mean apart...
SHAWNAnd how were you treated?
NNAMDIYou mean apart from surrounding the building and yelling obscenities at her? But go ahead, please, Charlayne.
SHAWNNo, no, no. Not only that. I mean, when she was enrolled in the school (unintelligible) classes.
NNAMDISure, sure. Go ahead, please, Charlayne.
HUNTER-GAULTYeah. I hear the question, and thank you for your intervention, Kojo.
HUNTER-GAULTYou know, the truth of the matter is that after that first few nights of rioting outside of my dormitory, most of the students just retreated back into their cocoons. And there were some, especially from the journalism school -- there were two young students, girls, who, you know, once they had covered much of the story, then became friends of mine. And one bravely would go to eat with me in the cafeteria. Now, she didn't wrote the story about it, but that's what I was talking about a few minutes ago. You can be involved in a certain kind of way and still be a professional.
HUNTER-GAULTSo she was reporting my experience, but we became friends. I had one young man from the North. And this is interesting, too, because the ones who became my closest friends were Southerners. In fact, at one point I married one. But the one from the North, who had the right instincts about coming to be my friend, at a certain point came to my dormitory and said he was so sorry. He was almost in tears. He was from New York.
HUNTER-GAULTBut the boys in his dorm had put so much pressure on him because they had seen him talking to me, that they told him that, you know, he was going to be stigmatized if he didn't stop associating with me. And he said, I just have to be honest with you. I can't take the pressure. And I told him I totally understood. But there was -- there were also a few teachers. Most of them didn't go out of the way to be friendly or not friendly.
HUNTER-GAULTBut one who lived across the street from the dorm and had watched all the rioting when the students were throwing bricks through the window, after that all calmed down, she invited -- she used to invite me over for tea. And we never talked about desegregation or any of that. We talked about "Franny and Zooey" and J.D. Salinger, who was my literary hero at the time. We talked about Dostoyevsky. We talked about all the things that interested me as a normal 19-year-old student at a university. So, you know, those contacts, for me, sort of helped me keep my balance and remember who I was.
NNAMDIA normal 19-year-old student at a university in a situation that was anything but normal. But I couldn't help but be struck by how you described the house mother in your dorm, who apparently acted as if something perfectly normal was taking place.
HUNTER-GAULTYes. As I said, you know, there were people like that. And Ms. Porter, I -- you know, she's no longer with us, nor is the English teacher, Frances Wallace, who was so gracious to me then. But, yeah, I mean, it was people like that who acted as if this was a totally normal thing. And so people say to me, well, how did you do this? What did it take for you to -- well, it just took the occasional person who saw me as a typical 19-year-old.
HUNTER-GAULTI mean, for example, when that brick -- one of the bricks that came through my window the night the students were rioting, I mean, my first thought as I looked down -- because I hadn't unpacked my suitcase. I'd only been on campus two days. My first thought was, oh, my goodness, they've got glass all over my clothes, you know?
HUNTER-GAULTSo I tried to stay who I was, you know, a 19-year-old college student who loved clothes and who loved J.D. Salinger. What can I say?
NNAMDIWe're running out of time, but I have to share this email from Catherine in Springfield, Va. "Ms. Hunter-Gault was responsible for one of the top three great epiphanies in my life. I grew up in a conservative Pennsylvania town, no formal segregation, but we rarely saw people of color in our part of town or in church. My first great epiphany was a vacation in the Deep South, the summer after we studied Social Security in school, where I saw firsthand who all the people were who held jobs that were not covered by Social Security. The second was the photo of Emmett Till in his coffin.
NNAMDI"The third was a photo of Ms. Hunter in Life magazine, I think, leaving the University of Georgia in fear of her life. I will never forget her expression or her poise amid all of the protestations of, you can't legislate morality, why would they want to go there where they aren't wanted and so on. As for me, I kept looking at that picture and saying, but she just wants to go to school. I'm still a lonely little petunia in an onion patch.
NNAMDI"Thank you, Ms. Hunter-Gault, for your significant role in my education and my life," writes Catherine.
HUNTER-GAULTSounds like Catherine should write a book. But I just want to quickly say that this book really is for young people, grade nine up through college. And I hope that their parents will read the book, too. But I just, you know, wrote this so that this part of our history where young people changed the face of the South and therefore of America did it.
NNAMDIIt's called "To the Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement." Charlayne Hunter-Gault, thank you very much for being. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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