The NewsHour Bids Farewell to Charlayne Hunter-Gault

June 13, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Some words about and from Charlayne. She takes her leave from us tonight, after nearly 20 years. First the words about her and to Kwame Holman.

KWAME HOLMAN: This is where it all began, December 8, 1997, Charlayne Hunter-Gault’s first day on the job for the then MacNeil/Lehrer Report. Well, it did not all start there. Charlayne was Charlayne long before the MacNeil/Lehrer Report.

Back in high school in Atlanta, she was a star, at the top of her class and prom queen. Charlayne took that title and ran with it, all the way to the University of Georgia, where she sued to become the first black woman admitted to the then all-white university. Vernon Jordan, one of the lawyers who worked on her case, recalls that time.

VERNON JORDAN, Civil Rights Attorney: I had the duty of putting my long arms of protection around Charlayne. The fact is she did not need me. She was so full of courage and fortitude and stamina and perseverance. She was 18 years old. And I, I mean, I was there but not needed. She could have managed that crowd and managed that process all by herself. And her mother was there. And we were–we were helpers, but she was the star.

KWAME HOLMAN: A few years after college, Charlayne moved to New York City to become a journalist. She began as a reporter for The New Yorker Magazine. In 1967, she worked for WRC-TV in Washington as a reporter and anchor, and in 1968, became an urban affairs reporter for the New York Times. Then in 1977, she noticed a small news program on PBS.

JIM LEHRER: (1997) Tonight, a look at this argument surrounding buses, the least glamorous and chic of all modes of transportation. Charlayne Hunter-Gault is sitting in for Robert MacNeil in New York tonight, as she will be regularly from now on when either one of us is gone. It’s her debut, in other words. Charlayne, welcome.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you, Jim. As you said, not everyone looks on the bus industry plight with sympathy.

KWAME HOLMAN: From there, Charlayne anchored and reported from the field for more than 19 years.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Here in Georgia, in the rural areas, whole towns are shutting down.

KWAME HOLMAN: She did not limit herself to just one subject area.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Down these mean streets of Harlem, a quite little miracle is going on.

KWAME HOLMAN: Poverty, race in America, youth violence–


KWAME HOLMAN: Jazz, science, and medicine, and interviews with historical figures. She pursued stories all across the globe.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The Grenadian government sold what was left of these bomb-scarred wooden shacks, and the Grenadians who bought them have carefully dismantled them and gone to rebuild them elsewhere.

KWAME HOLMAN: The aftermath of the conflict in Grenada–Apartheid’s People, an award-winning report on the effects of apartheid in South Africa. And Charlayne returned to South Africa to be one of the first journalists to interview Nelson Mandela just days after his release from prison.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What in your background enabled you to have the stamina, you think, and the fortitude and everything else it took to withstand 27 years behind bars?

NELSON MANDELA: I have pointed out to many similar questions which have been put to me that I find it difficult to answer this question. We received tremendous support, both locally and from overseas.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The war started. What changed in your life?


KWAME HOLMAN: She was there when America went to war.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Have the people suffered a lot because they haven’t had the food?

KWAME HOLMAN: And when soldiers went to build peace in the African nation of Somalia. There, like other places, Charlayne did whatever it took to get the story. And even without speaking the language, she made an indelible impression on the people of Somalia. And in 1994, she covered one of her biggest stories–reporting from the South African elections. She was there the night Mandela declared victory.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Meanwhile, after Mr. Mandela spoke, it just seemed as if people came out of nowhere. Black South Africans have poured into the streets in the thousands.

KWAME HOLMAN: Charlayne’s accomplishments in her more than 20-year career in journalism stand out for those in the profession and for many outside.

SIDNEY POITIER: To most of us nature has assigned modest tools with which we must try to chisel inch by inch a useful and productive path through life. Modest tools in the hands of most of us barely manage to sometimes get the job done, even modestly.

Sometimes ourselves and our tools are insufficient to the task; sometimes, on the other hand, there is you, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who wasn’t assigned modest tools like the rest of us.

Nature had to go and overload you with a great personality, a ton of talent, a smile that lights up the world, and a presence on the home screen that seduces us instantly.

May the wind be at your back in all your undertakings, and for me, tell Mother Africa that primal memory is at work on her behalf in all of her children’s children. The very best to you.

KWAME HOLMAN: Charlayne Hunter-Gault departs for South Africa this weekend. She will join National Public Radio as their bureau chief in Johannesburg.

JIM LEHRER: Now, some words from Charlayne.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I not only want to thank the star in the taped piece for that lovely farewell, but all of you NewsHour supporters, who’ve been the real stars of this show and in my life for the past two decades.

For, indeed, with your cards and letters and sometimes chance meetings in airports or other public places with your praise and your always careful, constructive criticism. You have illuminated my past to ever-expanding journalistic horizons.

No matter where in the world I have been I have always tried to take you with me, and I have worked with the support and encouragement of a first class group of colleagues whose highest priority has always been and I know always will be providing you with good news, even when the news, alas, is bad. To them, I leave my deepest gratitude.

And while I leave this program tonight, I go with the confidence that I take a piece of it with me, the good that has come of this collaboration with them and with you. It will follow me to my next horizon, a challenging continent called Africa, where I hope you’ll join me, as always.

JIM LEHRER: Amen, Charlayne.

There really are some things that never end. The relationship between Charlayne and this program is one of them. She’ll always be here with us and, thus, with you, the audience, because she helped create what we do and the way we do it.

We’ll miss her presence, her spirit, and verve, her get-up-and-move-out drive, and that special brand of reporting she brought to every story. You’d only get to run into one Charlayne in a lifetime. We’re so happy it happened to us for nearly 20 years. We wish her well in South Africa and everything she does now and forever more.