Charlayne Hunter-Gault looks back on battles won

December 29, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

Perhaps it is only fitting that when Charlayne Hunter-Gault decided to finally sing her song, she would first celebrate it where the melody began.

So her book tour started in the South, where her family's roots run deep; in Georgia, where she spent her youth; in Athens, Ga., xTC where she broke the lock of segregation.

There, in 1961, Ms. Hunter-Gault and Hamilton Holmes walked onto a college campus and into history as the first African-Americans to attend the University of Georgia. And there, 27 years later, after returning to make history again, Ms. Hunter-Gault says she decided to write her memoir.

"I felt a historical circle had been closed," says Ms. Hunter-Gault, 50, who in 1988 became the first African-American to deliver the school's commencement address. "And I felt it was time for me to look back."

Her witty, poignant, new book "In My Place" more than simply recounts their integration of the university. It also documents a generation's coming of age and honors the elders who gave her and others the courage to help change America.

"It's a book about black folks, and black love, and black triumph, as much as it is a book about the desegregation of the University of Georgia," she explains. "I think there's something in it for everybody."

Promoting a book is a very different experience for the acclaimed journalist who for nearly three decades has listened to the stories of others.

She began her career shortly after graduation, working as an editorial assistant and then reporter for the New Yorker. After a short stint as anchor of a Washington newscast,she moved to the New York Times in 1968, where she specialized in covering the urban black community and operated a one-person news bureau in Harlem. Nine years later, Ms. Hunter-Gault left the Times, and in 1978 she joined PBS' "MacNeil-Lehrer Report," where she is a New York-based correspondent.

"It's a whole different head thing," Ms. Hunter-Gault said of her promotional tour during a recent stop in Los Angeles. "To go somewhere and find people buying your book, not one copy but three, and sometimes four and five, is just the most wonderful experience you can imagine. It's very gratifying, and humbling in a way."

Before writing her book, she says, she had never consciously dissected the forces that gave a young black woman the strength to face a hostile, white Georgia crowd day after day in 1961. But she knew something was there, invisibly pushing her. "I instinctively knew," she says. "I never questioned it."

Her book weaves the history of peoples into stories about those forces and gives context to that long-ago event. Her father's career as an Army chaplain gives way to a glimpse of the horrors of the Korean War. There is a peek at the great black migration, that massive movement north that once swept her grandparents in its tide.

And there is a look at the history of Atlanta, where W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington engaged in historic debate at the turn of the century about how blacks could best progress; a city where a black businesswoman bought her own husband out of slavery.

"When you try to explain how it is somebody like me had the confidence, or whatever it took, to get into the University of Georgia without being afraid -- and with the confidence that we would prevail -- I felt I had to look at all of those things," Ms. Hunter-Gault says.

"We were protected and made to feel whole within the confines of segregation. . . . There were always things that they did to give us another layer of armor."

A statuesque woman with a Southern grace that warms her sophistication, Ms. Hunter-Gault has interviewed world leaders and covered peace talks in the Middle East. But the married mother of two still keeps her Southern upbringing in perspective, recognizing it as a critical factor in becoming the woman she is.

Pride hardened her spirit. Her book tells of the black school that in the 1940s used inferior instructional materials, served pig ears for lunch and gave students orange juice only when white schools had some left.

But "while those teachers could not give us first-class citizenship, they did everything they possibly could to give us a first-class sense of ourselves," Ms. Hunter-Gault says.

She hopes people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds can use the book as a mirror on a nation's past and future.

"We need to remember that it was only 30 years ago that so many of us got our first-class citizenship rights. . . . Thirty years is not a long time, on the one hand. But then, on the other hand, it's long enough for a lot more to have been done.

"So it's kind of a point of departure for assessment, for looking at how far we have come and looking at how far we have to go."

Ms. Hunter-Gault sees parallels between the resistance she faced integrating academia and the struggles faced by people of color trying to enter America's newsrooms.

The field of journalism, she says, is "the one place that presents itself as having as its objective searching for truth. And my question is, how can it be the truth if it's only what you saw, with your eyes, and you don't know me? How can you report it with any degree of accuracy?"

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