A Journalist’s Education
Reviewed by Linda Blackford
Vol. 15, No. 1, 1993, pp. 29-30
In Our Place, by Charlayne Hunter-Gault (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1992, 257 pages).
“We were simply doing what we were born to do.”
With this statement, journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault recalls her role in an era of great change for the United States. That role is less famous than her present persona as a television journalist with the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour. But in 1961, Charlayne Hunter attained instant fame as the young student from Atlanta who integrated all-white University of Georgia. She has set down her memories leading to that tumultuous time in In Our Place.
As Hunter-Gault writes, it becomes apparent that she was indeed a model to bring the South into the twentieth century. She was bright, beautiful, and well off by the standards of many Southern blacks, a polished product of black, middle-class Atlanta. Her father was an army chaplain frequently stationed away from home. She was raised by her mother and grandmother, the two women who most influenced her, and instilled in her the sense of pride and courage that convinced her that the University of Georgia was as much “our place” as anyone else’s.
Hunter-Gault records both happy and painful memories of her upbringing; her birth in Due West, South Carolina, her moves to Covington, Georgia, then Atlanta, growing up in schools that were neither equal to white ones nor up to the task of educating precociously intelligent children. Her childhood could have been that of many pretty, smart girls who are editors of their school paper and homecoming queens at their high school and who want to go to journalism school. But as she was black, and living in the South during the 1950s, it became the extraordinary precursor to extraordinary event.
Because the lengthy court battle had just begun on the case to enter the university, she went to Wayne State University, in Detroit, to begin her studies at another journalism school. At Wayne, she took part in the social life as a normal college student, joining a sorority, and getting involved with various student groups.
All that ended on December 13, 1961, when she and Hamilton Holmes entered the University of Georgia. Calvin Trillin has extensively documented the chronology of the two years that took Hunter, along with her Turner classmate Holmes, from the courts to the classrooms, in his An Education in Georgia. But where Trillin provided the facts, Hunter-Gault fills in the personal, compelling details of that time, such as how girls a flight above her in the dormitory took turns pounding on the floor so she wouldn’t be able to sleep, and the reactions of other students when she finally received permission to use the cafeteria. She and Holmes were suspended a week after their arrival, ostensibly for their own safety because of a student riot. She notes that the famous photo of her leaving the dorm after the riot, clutching her Madonna, showed tears of rage, not fear. Her last years at Georgia never became more warm or welcoming, despite the few people on campus who would talk to her, people she describes as “well meaning but who also had nothing else to do.”
One of the most interesting offshoots of her experiences is her ambivalent relationship with the civil rights movement. She, along with her peers at Turner in Atlanta, became involved in the Inquirer, a newspaper largely run by Atlanta’s student movement members, and would speak for various organizations about her experiences. But as she became less of a member and more of a symbol, the novelty and allure of the movement and her role within it lost its appeal. When Walter Stovall (whom she later married), a white student from the University, came to visit in Atlanta, the disapproval of some of her black friends became a lightning rod for many of her frustrations with the civil rights movement in general.
“I found the things they said to be racially insensitive and totally at odds with the movement position articulated by Dr. King: that people should be judged ‘not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.’ Besides wasn’t anybody concerned with my personal happiness? How much of a sacrifice was I supposed to make? And who was in a position to judge?” She never underestimates the historical importance of her experience. But she never rests on her laurels as a hero of the movement, a role she neither desires nor sees as particularly heroic.
“If I were going to be known to the world, I wanted it to be through the efforts of my ability, rather than through something that but for the time and the place should have been ordinary, routine occurrence. I wanted to be famous someday, but not simply for going to college.”
Autobiographical writing remains one of the most difficult literary genres to convey to the reader without either being self-effacing, boastful, or awkward. Hunter-Gault writes without sentiment, bravado, or bitterness, a pleasing combination of journalistic detail, humor, and insight. Her life comes through as clear as her prose, with the same sense of purpose and persistence that got her through the
most arduous travails at Georgia, and to her status as a national journalist. It is the work for which she seems to want to be remembered and recognized—the rest was something she was born to do.
Linda Blackford, who reviewed Calvin Trillin’s book about Hunter-Gault’s and Hamilton Holmes’s desegregation of the University of Georgia in our August/September 1992 issue, is a reporter for The Observer, Charlottesville.