Early in her life, Charlayne Hunter-Gault made history. Then, for half a century, she covered it.
In 1961, at age 18, she was one of the first two Black students to be admitted to the University of Georgia, after a lengthy legal fight. She was already working as a journalist — inspired as a child, she says, by the comics pages’ Brenda Starr — and she would go on to write for the New Yorker and the New York Times (where she founded the newspaper’s Harlem bureau), and to become a substitute anchor and national correspondent for “PBS NewsHour,” garnering two Emmys and a Peabody. She also spent more than a decade in South Africa as a reporter and bureau chief for NPR and CNN.
That stellar career is on display in her new book, “My People: Five Decades of Writing About Black Lives.” It’s a thoughtfully chosen sampler of Hunter-Gault’s work that ranges chronologically from a piece she wrote in 1961 not long after she entered the University of Georgia to columns published as recently as last year. Thematically they focus, from many different vantages, on the complexities of civil rights and race.
Hunter-Gault is one of those gifted reporters who can both marshal facts and bring a human touch to a story. Her 1970 profile for the New York Times of U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress (and later the first Black woman to run for a major party’s nomination for president), captures Chisholm’s impressive political skills and determination as well as her fearless sense of humor, as when she notes, in the midst of the Vietnam War, “Many gentlemen in the House of Representatives have sons eligible to serve in Vietnam who are in reserve units. I know one who has six sons, all in the reserves. He can afford to get up and talk about escalating the war.”
In “On the Case in Resurrection City,” a long-form piece on the 1968 encampment on the National Mall by thousands of civil rights protesters that lasted for 42 days, Hunter-Gault brings an anthropologist’s eye to examining the social structure that develops as various groups angle for power, and a novelist’s touch to sketches of some of the individuals who populate the place.
Another expansive and remarkable piece, “The Third Man,” published in the New Yorker in 2010, is not only a detailed profile of South Africa’s controversial then-President Jacob Zuma, but an absorbing history of the nation’s post-apartheid politics.
Hunter-Gault writes perceptively about popular culture in some of the pieces, like a stunning 1971 interview with actor Woody Strode. In another, “‘Roots’ Getting a Grip on People Everywhere,” she talks to people about their response to the 1977 TV miniseries based on Alex Haley’s novel about his enslaved ancestors. It was a phenomenon that drew a viewing audience of 80 million people (inconceivable in today’s fragmented media landscape) and inspired countless conversations. People gathered to watch it together, and a New York bartender tells Hunter-Gault that one night the crowd in his bar “got so angry over the treatment of Kunta Kinte that they would not allow the jukebox to be turned on even after the show had ended.”
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“‘They just wanted to talk it out,’ he said.”
Some of the pieces in the book are personal essays, and among the most engaging are those about Hunter-Gault’s favorite places. Several of them recount her first experience, as a little girl, of traveling from her small hometown in Georgia to Harlem, where she’s delighted to play hopscotch on paved sidewalks instead of a red-clay playground. In others, she writes about her discovery as an adult of Oak Bluff, the Black enclave on Martha’s Vineyard that she would eventually make her home.
She writes of her only meeting with Martin Luther King Jr., a chance encounter in 1961 that moved her to tears, and of her long and inspiring relationship with Nelson Mandela.
In several pieces, she writes of moving onto the University of Georgia campus, where one night a white mob surrounded the dormitory she’d been placed in, throwing bricks and bottles through windows. She was evacuated, but not before police used tear gas to break up the mob. The gas drifted in the broken windows, and the house mother told the other residents to change their bedsheets. Hunter-Gault recalls some of her angry dorm mates throwing quarters at her and ordering her to make the beds before she left, with a police escort.
There is a circular rhythm to much of the book, with subjects and issues appearing in one article only to return in one written years or decades later. It’s touching to read a 1977 story about an energetic young John Lewis, voting organizer and “a disciple of nonviolent demonstrations and coalition politics,” and then to read her 2020 tribute, “Remembering John Lewis and the Significance of Freedom Rides.”
It can also be dispiriting to realize that, across half a century, Hunter-Gault returns to the essential subject of racism because it is so intransigent. “There are times,” she writes, “when, watching the news, I am brought to tears, not least when I see some of those I still think of as my fellow citizens, nevertheless exhibit awful behavior toward others who don’t look like them — the latest being the despicable behavior at the Capitol.
“It is in these moments that I wonder: Why have they not learned from history? Is it because not all of our history is being taught in many schools around the country? And why is there no embrace of respecting differences of opinion?”
But Hunter-Gault always seems to turn toward hope, and she finds forgiveness in her heart: “I leave you with the question: what can we all do to keep working toward a more perfect union? Go Dogs!”
My People: Five Decades of Writing About Black Lives
By Charlayne Hunter-Gault
Harper, 342 pages, $27.99
Times Festival of Reading
Charlayne Hunter-Gault will be a featured author at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Nov. 12. She will speak at 2 p.m. in Hough Hall at the Palladium, 253 Fifth Ave. N, St. Petersburg. Tickets $25 general admission, $50 VIP at mytbtickets.com. This event is a fundraiser for the Tampa Bay Times Journalism Fund. Find author bios and information at tampabay.com/expos/festival-of-reading.