May 13, 2016
Renowned Journalist, Human Rights Activist Challenges a New Generation
By Angela Burrows
Quoting Afro-Caribbean psychiatrist, philosopher, revolutionary and writer Frantz Fanon, Charlayne Hunter-Gault said, "Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it."
Hunter-Gault, a celebrated journalist, author and civil rights activist, keynoted Susquehanna's 2016 winter convocation and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration in January. As one of two African-American students to break racial barriers at the all-white University of Georgia in 1961, she fought to gain a seat at the table, although she admits she did not see herself as a pioneer at the time.
Raised largely by her mother and grandmother because her father,a military chaplain, was often far from home, Hunter-Gault was brought up with a strong sense of self. And having grown up reading a comic strip about the adventure-filled life of reporter Brenda Starr, she wanted to be a journalist and knew a higher education was her way of getting there.
Now a 74-year-old, award-winning journalist, whose career path started at the New Yorker and led to the New York Times, NPR, PBS and CNN, she shrugs off claims that she was a courageous 19-year-old. Yet in retrospect, those times were much more stressful than she realized. She recalls frequent visits to the infirmary because of "stomach problems" and noted that Hamilton Holmes, the high school classmate who entered the university with her, was always the first to visit. She suspects that Hamilton, who died at 54, suffered from health issues related to post-traumatic stress disorder
Thinking back on Brenda Starr, Hunter-Gault said she never really considered that her role model was a woman, and a white woman at that.
"I mean, this was during the time of segregation. But when I told my mother that was what I wanted to be when I grew up, she didn't tell me that it was not something open to black girls. Rather, she said, 'If that's what you want to do,' because I think, instinctively, my mother knew that dreams propel ambition."
Hunter-Gault's ambition has led her to cover every kind of story imaginable, in many places around the world. "What I am most gratified by is having the opportunity and instruments to present people in ways that are honest portrayals of themselves, as well as giving voice to the voiceless," she said.
So what does this generation of young people need to know about the civil rights movement and their role in "giving voice to the voiceless" in today's society? "I would say that the Freedom Fighters of the '60s were so committed to what they were trying to achieve that they were willing to die pursuing it," Hunter-Gault said. And there were those—both black and white—who did, indeed, die for the cause.
Moreover, she said: "I would hope they would allow the timeless and transcendent lessons of history help to guide them. Not everyone was involved in the civil rights movement, so not everyone has to be an activist. But it is my hope that this generation will embrace the goals that those in the movement embraced ... freedom, justice and equality for all, including the newest arrivals to our shores."
Angela Burrows is the chief communications officer at Susquehanna.