As a little girl, Charlayne Hunter-Gault would sit on her grandmother’s knee while she read the news, picking out the comics, finding one in particular rather enchanting.
“I fell in love with Brenda Starr,” she said. “I thought, here’s the most exciting job for a woman — taking on the world as she reported for the newspaper. It never occurred to me that this was a white woman with red hair and blue eyes.”
As a black woman with hazel eyes, Mrs. Hunter-Gault has fulfilled this childhood fantasy many times over, never letting the color of her skin determine which life path she could travel. She has written for The New Yorker and The New York Times, been an investigative reporter for The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, was the chief correspondent in Africa for National Public Radio and South Africa bureau chief for CNN, and along the way won two Emmys and several other journalism awards.
But before she covered the news, she was the center of news. Mrs. Hunter-Gault and fellow student Hamilton Holmes were the first black students to enroll at the all-white University of Georgia in January 1961, an occasion documented on the front page of The New York Times. Personal experiences and memories such as this intertwine with research and milestones of the Civil Rights movement in her most recent book To the Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement (New York Times/Roaring Brook Press), which she will read from on Thursday at the Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs. The event is a benefit for Island Elderly Housing, its Blueberry Van and quality of life programs.
The book chronicles the pivotal years in the Civil Rights movement from 1959 to 1965, following Mrs. Hunter-Gault from her senior year in high school to her first job out of college as a New Yorker reporter.
By writing for an audience of young readers — high school and up — Mrs. Hunter-Gault said she wanted to help educate students on the courage, patience, determination and sacrifices it took from many young people collectively in order to challenge the status quo and government rulings at the time.
She said the value and importance of addressing a young audience became clear to her when the Southern Poverty Law Center released a study last year showing that most students’ knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement revolved mainly around the stories of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. There was little general knowledge about civil rights activists such as the Freedom Riders.
“I wanted to help young people know where they came from,” she said. “I wanted them to know the courage that it took, the reasons students did what they did, the reasons they were willing to make sacrifices, and that in order to keep democracy true to it’s promise, you have to stay vigilant. That’s where young people of this generation come in.”
Entering high school, Mrs. Hunter-Gault started working for the school newspaper, and became the first junior editor at the Turner High Green Light.
“That was because I couldn’t bear to sit in these classrooms day in and day out. I needed to be out of the room! So it helped me be excused from class,” she laughed.
And when it came time for college, there was no question about it, she would be going to journalism school.
The University of Georgia was the only school in the state that offered a journalism program — she would be one of two black students in a school of 20,000. In 1961 she walked into the registrar’s office to the tune of jeering and chanting.
“While it was a walk into history, I never thought of it that way,” she said. “I was just pursuing my own path, which happened to be a path that opened a lot of doors.”
While fellow young people participated in sit-ins and Freedom Rides, Mrs. Hunter-Gault continued her education and traveled to Atlanta on the weekends to report for an activist student newspaper.
“I couldn’t get arrested because if I did the university would use that as an excuse against me,” she said. “So the way I was able to actually participate in the movement was to write about it . . . I wasn’t an activist, I was a journalist. I tried to present people in ways that were recognizable to themselves, and I tried to give a voice to people who didn’t always have a voice in the media.”
Now a freelance journalist, earlier this year she wrote a story for The New Yorker on corrective rape in South Africa. Mrs. Hunter-Gault continues to be a storyteller for those who are unheard.
On the Vineyard, the place she and her husband now call home for most of the year, she tries to contribute to organizations that mean something to her, hence the benefit for Island Elderly Housing.
“This was appealing to me as I get older. I won’t always be sitting on the porch, although I plan to,” she said from a comfortable perch on her purple porch overlooking the Oak Bluffs harbor. “I know the difference between people who are privileged with access to assistance . . . and I also know the flip side of it.”
Although her book is directed toward a young audience, she believes all ages can benefit from its message about the accomplishments and hardships of the Civil Rights movement.
“I think people are hungry for history . . . again and again you learn from history,” she said. “We live in a country where you have to work at making democracy live up to its promises. So I’m hoping that these young people can understand that they can make a difference even if times are tough right now. A phrase we used in the movement is — you have to keep on keepin’ on.”
Charlayne Hunter-Gault reads from her book this Thursday at the Union Chapel. Doors open at 6:45 p.m. Admission is $35 in advance and $40 at the door. Tickets are on sale at TicketsMV, Alley’s General Store, DaRosa’s, Bunch of Grapes and C’est La Vie.