2010 Choral Arts Humanitarian Award Recipient
Transcript from Charlayne Hunter-Gault’s speech at the 22nd Annual Choral Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Sunday, January 10, 2010 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Good evening. I’m John Seigenthaler, and I’m privileged to be with you tonight to present this distinguished Humanitarian Award to a gifted American journalist, Charlayne Hunter-Gault. In a very personal sense, I’m honored to be here. Charlayne and I share a common profession and a Southern heritage. We were both witnesses, albeit from different perspectives, to the civil rights revolution of the early 1960s. There came a time when we both, again in different ways, actively became participants in that movement that transformed and now has shaped our nation’s history.
It was 49 years ago this very week that Charlayne Hunter registered for classes at the University of Georgia, a school 75 miles from her home in Atlanta. She transferred from Wayne State in Detroit, and there’s an irony here. She had been admitted to the Michigan school with financial aid from the state of Georgia whose political leaders encouraged their talented black students to move out of state to study in order to discourage them from attempting to enroll in their own institutions of higher learning. It had taken 18 months of legal struggle and strife to force the University of Georgia to admit Charlayne and her fellow black student, Hamilton Holmes. The week they enrolled was punctuated by a full blown riot.
Her book In My Place tells of those dangerous times more eloquently than I ever could. She wrote, “With the ink barely dry on the court order, Hamilton Holmes and I walked onto the campus and into history. We would be greeted by mobs of white students, who within 48 hours would hurl epithets and burn crosses and black effigies, and finally staged a riot outside my dormitory while nearby state troopers ignored calls to intervene.” She went on, “Tear gas would disperse the crowd, but not before I got word in my dorm room, now strewn with glass from rocks thrown through the window, that we were being suspended for our own safety. It might’ve been the end,” she wrote, “but for the fact that the University of Georgia was now the lead case in a series of events that would become Georgia’s entry into the civil rights revolution.” And she said, “And we, like the legion of Black students who would follow, were imbued with an unshakeable determination to take control of our destiny and force the South to abandon the wretched Jim Crow laws it had relied on for generations to keep us in our place.”
So, it was early in May, just hours before the first wave of Freedom Riders boarded a bus to take them south to face racist violence, that Attorney General Robert Kennedy arrived at the University of Georgia to speak to the school’s Law Day ceremony. By this time, I had left the news desk in Nashville, Tennessee to serve as Robert Kennedy’s administrative assistant. On the day he came to Athens, I laid eyes for the first time on this brave young student. This was Robert Kennedy’s first formal speech as Attorney General, and I have distinct personal memories of it all. Charlayne’s journalism again tells the story of that day and that speech with more eloquence than I have ever could. She wrote, “Georgia’s top politicians, fearing a bombshell speech on civil rights, boycotted the talk.” She said, “I recall thinking of the irony of where the invitation to the Attorney General had come from, given the role law students who were in the riot outside my dorm.” She quoted from Kennedy’s speech: he said, “we know that we cannot live together without rules, which tell us what is right, what is wrong, what is permitted, and what is prohibited.” He told the audience, “We know that it is the law which enables men to live together, that creates order out of chaos, and we know that if one man’s rights are denied, the rights of all are endangered.” And then there were the words that she said, quote, “almost knocked me off my seat: ‘The graduation at this university of Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes will,’ the Attorney General said, ‘will without question aid and assist the fight against communism, political infiltration, and guerrilla warfare.'” From that point on, Charlayne said, she listened in a state of shock. Kennedy had acknowledged that her presence at this school had meaning around the world.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault’s journey in journalism has taken her to one of the places that Kennedy had spoken of that day, Africa. And what a difference her work there has made. Whether her reports have dealt with political unrest or political stability, or poverty or hunger, or the scourge of HIV, AIDS, or the hope of people across that continent, because of her, we know more than ever before, about Darfur and Ghana, Ethiopia, and Tanzania and Mozambique and Burundi and the Congo. But wherever her journalism journey took her, to whatever media outlet before she went to Africa, she has provided inspiration to others in New News Out of Africa, her book. She tells us, quote, “if we encourage African journalists, their stories, told from their own perspectives, we’ll surely give rise to a new generation of Africans and to a new generation of the world’s people beyond the continent’s borders, who, thanks to African journalists, will understand that continent.” It’s out of her own unique experience she knows of that.
One of her favorite poets, Zora Neale Hurston, wrote “We are each other’s harvest. We are each other’s business. We are each other’s magnitude and bond.” And in that same theme, Martin Luther King said, “We are tied into a single garment of destiny. We are made to live together.” No journalist I know about more completely reflects the meaning of those words than Charlayne Hunter-Gault. And for all she’s meant to journalism, for all she’s meant to understanding and appreciating a land and a culture beyond our own sight and vision, and for her skill and empathy and passion and courage as a human being, I ask you to join me in welcoming the 2010 recipient of the Choral Arts Society of Washington’s Humanitarian Award, Charlayne Hunter-Gault.
I was told I had three minutes, but I’m going to have to take a minute to just catch my breath. This has just been so amazing. Especially the words of John Seigenthaler, who is one of my heroes. This moment actually puts me in the mind of the words of a young Black man who said more than once on his way to becoming President of the United States of America–oh, you know who it was?— he said so many times during his campaign that he was standing on the shoulders of giants. Well, I knew some of those giants. Many of them were friends of mine, and all of them lifted me up and added to the suit of armor I wore through my own challenging days. Some, like Martin Luther King, who took up the call from college students who were friends of mine and marched with them in the streets of Atlanta, and got arrested with them and paid a dear price, for they kept him in jail after they had released my friends. And in the darkness before dawn, they whisked him to a prison far from Atlanta, with his hands cuffed behind him as he lay on the floor of the police van guarded by a vicious, snarling dog. But the giant in Dr. King not only survived that journey, he conquered.
He conquered like the students, some of whom have been honored on this platform and sit in this balcony tonight. Julian’s up there. Marian Wright Edelman is up there. Eleanor Holmes Norton is up there. Moreover, Dr. King not only added a layer of inspiration to my suit of armor. When I first met him on the street one day on Sweet Auburn Avenue, because that’s where all the sweet Black businesses were, before I could tell him how much he had inspired me, he began to tell me how proud he was of Hamilton, Holmes, and me for the stand that we had taken at the University of Georgia. It was a day that added another layer to my suit of armor: the layer of humility.
But today as I stand here, feeling again a little like that young Black man who went on to become president, and soon received the Nobel Peace Prize, I accept this award as he accepted his: in the name of others, in the name of the giants, without whom my journey here tonight would not have been possible. Starting with my mother, who, when I told her as a very young girl that I wanted to be a journalist, my mother didn’t say, “You can’t do that in this Black, segregated town. It’s not possible.” My mother said, “Well, if that’s what you want to do,” because instinctively my mother knew that dreams propel ambition. At the same time, I accept this award in the name of other giants. Not only my immediate family, but my neighbors, the teachers, and the preachers in my segregated community, who, as descendants of Africa, knew instinctively that it takes a village to raise a child. They were the giants who added to the suit of armor I wore. They didn’t have the power to give us first-class citizenship, but they gave us something that enabled us to get it for themselves and for us as well: they gave us a first-class sense of ourselves. So this award must be shared with those giants on whose shoulders I stand, who created a strong armor for me out of their values. And I owe it to them. And I owe it to your inspiration tonight to continue to walk, as we used to say back in those days, to continue to walk and never get weary. For despite the roads I’ve been equipped to travel, there is still so much to be done, especially providing the shoulders for the generations like the young, beautiful voices we’ve heard tonight coming along behind us.
I also think it is part of my job to ensure that we all understand that the problems confronting the younger generation of the 21st century know no boundaries. Spending as I do half my time in South Africa and the other half in the United States, I have come to the realization that a child growing up in the squalor of a South African township has a counterpart in the United States. And they are confronted with many of the same issues, ranging from poor education that is not preparing them for this century’s new challenges, to child on child sexual abuse. Both here and there, younger and younger children are abusing other children. And so I feel a sense of urgency about raising the kinds of questions that will inspire others to action. And as I see it, none is more important than the one in which Dr. King once asked, saying, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are we doing for others?”
It is in that spirit I ask tonight, how do we create the giants of this generation? What are we doing to create the layers of armor? This powerful music tonight provides music similar to the music that we sang that provided a layer of armor for us, enabling some of us to face the mobs, others, to take the beatings and the jailings, and to keep on keeping on even after the murder of our friends. We overcame singing songs like “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” And I was going to sing it, but Eleanor Holmes Norton dared me. She said, you can speak, but don’t sing. I could say [singing] “ain’t going to let nobody,” but she wouldn’t let me do it.
And today music is being used to help create suits of armor for children in South Africa, diverting young abusers from the criminal justice system already filled to the brim with young Black men, not unlike here in America. So, as uplifted as I am by this beautiful concert, I would hope this music does more than warm us on a cold winter’s night. I would hope that those with the gift of song will use it to create suits of armor for the giants of tomorrow, which I understand the Choral Arts Society is indeed doing. And [I hope] that those who have enjoyed this gift tonight be inspired to share their gifts with our children at home and abroad, with them wearing the armor of transcendent values, our best weapon for combating terrorism. Connection is not a luxury. It is a necessity. And with news organizations closing their foreign bureaus all over the world, we are all challenged to come up with those creative ways to keep open those connections at home and abroad. We have to be connected to the global community. We have no choice. And so, I thank you through the layers of my armor all the way down to the bottom of my heart. And I promise you that I intend to work to deserve this honor, as long as my armor holds up. I thank you.