Former NPR correspondent discusses being a black student in the 1960s

By Stephanie Jee Won Yang

Professor Charlayne Hunter-Gault and the student-faculty panel discussing their civil rights enterprise project.
Professor Charlayne Hunter-Gault and the student-faculty panel discussing their civil rights enterprise project.

Professor Charlayne Hunter-Gault, former foreign correspondent for National Public Radio, spoke to the Northwestern community on Friday at McCormick Foundation Center about being a black student in the sixties.

The two-hour speech, titled “My Sixties: Reflections on Coming of Age in the ‘Miracle Decade’ & Enduring Lessons,” was part of One Book One Northwestern, a year-long reading program hosted by the Office of the President.

Hunter-Gault began the evening with a brief reflection of her upbringing. Being one of the two first black students to attend the University of Georgia, she recalled specifically the third night after desegregation when a mob of students gathered outside her dormitory.

“They threw ugly words, but they also threw bricks,” she said. “Police who were not in favor of me being there took time coming to break up the riot. When they finally did get there, they perfunctorily threw some tear gas, then the Dean came to me and said I was suspended ‘for my own safety.’”

Sharing a few of her encounters with other civil rights activists, Hunter-Gault said the turning point in her journalistic career was in 1964, when she published an article on a riot that occurred shortly after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

“It drew upon my civil rights consciousness as I looked beyond the South and the more pervasive discrimination around my country.”

Hunter-Gault regards the history surrounding her youth as one of her main journalistic inspirations, and considers herself “fortunate to have witnessed the power of concerted activism as a participant and observer.”

For the rest of her speech, Hunter-Gault shared her experience of covering the apartheid regime in South Africa. She began covering the story back in 1985, when she traveled to South Africa and interviewed several prominent oppressors.

But Hunter-Gault’s historic moment as a journalist came in 1990, when she was able to secure an in-person interview with Nelson Mandela, shortly after his release from prison. Hunter-Gault was one of the two journalists who got a 30-minute interview, when she was originally assigned a 10-minute slot.

“I decided I’ve got to let him know who he is, what he stood for and what his people have being fighting for,” she said.

Wrapping up her speech, Hunter-Gault voiced her hopes for America’s future journalists. She said, “Our job as journalists is to create news that can be used by every citizen toward a more perfect union… It is our job as journalists to see to it that every citizen has news that can be used to help make a better world.”

Medill freshman Rita Oceguera said she found the speech truly inspiring. “I liked how the professor was really funny and it was nice to hear from someone with a lot of experience. I also liked how she gave us tips about being a journalist.”

The hour-long speech was followed by a Q&A session with a panel of three students and two Medill faculty members, Professors Ava Greenwell and Michael Deas.

The group spent this summer working on a 10-week long enterprise project titled “The Civil Rights Acts of 1964.” The students took turns sharing their experience examining the legacy of the Civil Rights Act in Chicago and D.C., and were able to investigate discrimination in the fields of housing, employment and education, as well as discrimination in digital platforms.

“I was very surprised that the banks really went out of their way to explain to me their perspectives,” said Robin Amer, a student participant who reported on major banks who were accused of discrimination by a housing group. “When the story was published, none of them came back saying ‘You got it wrong.’ To me, that silence was good.”

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