Courage Remembered 50 Yrs. Later: An Interview With Civil Rights Icon Charlayne Hunter-Gault

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    Charlayne Hunter-Gault did not plan on becoming a civil rights hero.  She just wanted to go to school.  But, her own personal courage and determination to exercise her right to a public educational facility 50 years ago last week made her just that.

    Civil rights history-maker Charlayne Hunter-Gault visited  Madison to serve as keynote speaker for the 26th Annual City-County King Holiday Observance on Monday, Jan. 17, at the Overture Center Capital Theater.

    Hunter-Gault has earned acclaim in her career as an award-winning journalist, both on television and in print.  She is known for her work in Johannesburg, South Africa as National Public Radio’s chief correspondent in Africa and later for her work as CNN’s Johannesburg bureau chief. Her awards are numerous, including two Emmys and a Peabody for her work on “Apartheid’s People,” a NewsHour series on South Africa.

    She took some time away from the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of the University of Georgia festivities recently to chat with The Madison Times from her home in Athens, Ga. That tense and very chaotic first day of school at UGA, she still remembers like it was yesterday.

    Interested in journalism, a young Charlayne Hunter wanted to attend a college with a strong journalism program. In Georgia this meant the University of Georgia, which in the early ’60s did not admit African Americans.

    Fifty years ago, an impeccably dressed teenager walked through an angry mob of screaming and howling White students to attend her first day of classes, breaking the long-existing color barrier at that school.

    At the time, Hunter-Gault was taking on more than just those students; she was taking on the entire state of Georgia.

    “That atmosphere was quite charged,” remembers Hunter-Gault.  “I actually think that it wasn’t a lot of students who were doing all of the yelling of racial epithets. It just seemed that way.  I think a lot of the students were just curious. But, there was enough of them making noise.”

    On Jan. 9, 1961, the University of Georgia accepted its first two Black students — Hamilton Holmes and Hunter-Gault.  On that first day at the school, Holmes and his father, and Hunter-Gault and her mother had no security escort as they walked on campus with their lawyer Vernon Jordan, who gained respect as a civil rights activist and later became a close adviser to former President Bill Clinton.

    “It was a very busy time because we began our enrollment in the morning and the judge who ordered us in suddenly gave a stay of the order so we had to stop registering,” Hunter-Gault remembers.

    “Halfway through that day we were re-ordered in by another judge and we managed to get through the crowd and finish registering.”

    That night, a mob rioted and chanted outside of her dormitory room. It took a suspiciously long time for the police to get there to disperse the students, Hunter-Gault remembers.

    “Ultimately, they had to use tear gas. I had heard this ‘2-4-6-8… We don’t want to integrate… cha, cha, cha, cha’ all night long. That first night, I would eventually go to sleep with that peculiar lullaby in the background.

    “The next night, when I expected the same thing, a brick came through my window and I thought, ‘Well, this changes things!'”

    The university came in and made the decision to suspend her for her own safety. “But, the next day our lawyers went to court and got us readmitted,” she remembers.

    Hunter-Gault’s struggles to attend classes at the University of Georgia shone a national light brightly on an inherently racist system and bigoted society and was a huge event in the Civil Rights Movement.

    Did Hunter-Gault realize the magnitude of what she was doing at the time or was she too young to appreciate fully what was transpiring?

    “I was a pretty mature 19-year-old, but I couldn’t imagine that 50 years later we would be having the kind of celebration that we are having,” Hunter-Gault says. “Without being falsely modest, at the time our principal concern was not so much making history, but entering the state university — which we were entitled to — in order to realize our dreams.”

    For the ambitious Holmes and Hunter, their goal wasn’t to attend Atlanta’s Georgia State, as their legal team suggested, but instead to go to the state’s flagship school. After all, UGA offered the best pre-med and journalism courses in the state.

    “[Hamilton Holmes] could have gotten the basic education he needed at Morehouse, which he loved, [but] the university [of Georgia] had the facilities par excellence and they were facilities that were enabled by the taxes of our parents,” says Hunter-Gault. “So, we felt pretty much entitled to attend the University of Georgia.”

    Unfortunately, there were many that didn’t harbor those same sentiments at the time, including the governor, the Regents, the Legislature, and the judiciary, and the University System of Georgia. The university did everything conceivable and possible — legal and illegal — to keep them out. But they could not.

    “As time went on, we began to recognize the breadth of this and the impact in the larger society,” Hunter-Gault says. “But, when we first decided to do it, it wasn’t with the idea of making history, nor did we even think about being exposed to the kind of hatred and venom and even the rioting that took place outside of my dormitory the second night I was on campus.”

    This week, Hunter-Gault returned to Mahler Auditorium at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education to give speeches to mark the 50th anniversary of when she and Hamilton Holmes, who passed away in 1995, became the university’s first two Black students. She took part in roundtable discussions on racial issues that she hopes will turn into a yearlong series of television and radio programs, and ultimately even a college course. The 50th anniversary festivities allowed her to meet many eager young people — some more knowledgeable about the Civil Rights Movement than others. “I think for the most part it’s kind of ancient history for a lot of them.  I spoke with some students and I mentioned SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] and they were like, ‘What was SNCC?'” Hunter-Gault

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