On January 9, 1961, an 18 year old from Atlanta did what everyone who wanted to register for classes at the University of Georgia that spring semester did. She and former classmate, Hamilton Holmes, showed up on the Athens campus. But their experience was different: they were met with ugly shouts and racial epithets from what had been until then an all-white student body.
The young woman was Charlayne Hunter, a high school academic star, who had been approached by black civic leaders in Atlanta who were looking to challenge segregation in the state’s colleges. A couple days later, Hunter and Holmes were forced to return to their homes in Atlanta after an angry mob gathered outside her dormitory and threw bottles and bricks through the windows. But the two soon returned, with the help of a federal court order; both stuck it out and went on to graduate a few years later.
While all this was happening in Athens, just 95 miles to the east, in Augusta, Ga., a 14 year old was mainly focused on her junior high school studies and life, with still unclear dreams about which college or career lie ahead. She heard little or nothing of the commotion taking place at the state’s premier public university. But she would eventually be aware that the old South was changing, whether it wanted to or not, and that change would make the whole country a better place.
Twenty-two years later, when that second young woman joined the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour team as they were about to launch the first hour-long newscast on broadcast television, one of her — my — new colleagues would be the woman who had made history integrating the University of Georgia. She was by now Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a prize-winning journalist and former writer for the New Yorker.
Charlayne would become my good friend, someone I admired enormously for the courage she showed at such a young age, only to be deepened by the years she spent reporting on, and writing about, inequality in America, and later, South Africa, where she lived for two decades.
She would win many journalism honors and would continue, as she still does today, to write and speak with a clear, forceful voice about some of the most important stories of our time. She appeared on the NewsHour the other day, reporting on the shamefully high incidence of domestic abuse in South Africa. I never stop marveling at the uncommon qualities she brought to a hostile college campus so many years ago, making her a central figure in the Civil Rights movement and in American history.