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- December 07, 1992
- Vol. 38
- No. 23
She's a Newswoman with a Past—as a Civil Rights Hero
An award-winning national correspondent on PBS's MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour, Hunter-Gault, 50, offers a thin slice of herself in public—the unemotional professional. But to those who know her well, "she's an excitable, even eccentric person," says her close friend Ed Bradley of CBS's 60 Minutes. "I've seen her waltz around balancing a Moroccan plate on her head." Hunter-Gault has also kept in shadow her role as a civil rights pioneer who, together with Holmes (now an orthopedic surgeon in Atlanta), integrated UGA in 1961. But in her new memoir, In My Place (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), she talks about those tumultuous years—and the fortitude that saw her through the riots and the racism. "Their rocks, their bricks, their spit never touched me," she says, "because in my head I was an African queen."
One of three children of Methodist Army chaplain Charles Hunter and his wife, Althea, she was born in the hamlet of Due West, S.C., and spent her early years in the picturesque north Georgia town of Covington—where CBS films In the Heat of the Night. When the family moved to Atlanta in 1951, Hunter-Gault was already plotting how to become a journalist—just like her comic-strip hero, Brenda Starr. She became a top student at Turner High, the city's premier black school, and a striking homecoming queen in 1958.
It was because they had such sparkling records that she and classmate Holmes were approached by civil rights leaders about breaking Georgia's college color line. Both students agreed, even though no white university in the Deep South had then been successfully desegregated. And nobody knew what the reaction might be in Athens, 75 miles from Atlanta—in Hunter-Gault's words, "on the other side of some of the most backward, racist little towns in Georgia."
In January 1961, a year and a half after she and Holmes applied Hunter-Gault was already enrolled at Wayne State University in Detroit), a federal judge ordered the integration of UGA. On registration day a crowd of while students surrounded Hunter-Gault's car and started rocking it until they were chased away by a dean. "I was in that car," says Althea Hunter, "and I was frightened. I didn't know if she'd be killed or what." Two nights later a mutinous crowd—some 1,000 strong—began milling outside Hunter-Gault's dorm. A brick crashed through the window, spattering glass on her still packed clothes. "The crazier things get, the calmer I get," Hunter-Gault says. "I remember thinking, 'I'm in the middle of a riot. So this is now it is.
After police dispersed the rioters with tear gas, Hunter-Gault was led to a ear weeping with anger: she and Holmes had just been suspended "for their own safety," said a university official. The next day, a federal court ordered them back to slay.
During the next 2½ years, the pair were occasionally threatened. Faculty members patrolled the halls outside some of Charlayne's classes to keep troublemakers away. Holmes once had to pretend he had a gun in his pocket to make a group of while students back off. "Charlayne's sense of irony helped her," says Calvin Trillin who covered the UGA integration battle for TIME. "She was watching herself go through it and watching the press watching her go through it." In fact aspiring journalist Hunter-Gault says she was studying her craft by learning which reporters she wanted to emulate.
A handful of white students did befriend her. One was Walter Stovall, whom she secretly married shortly before earning her degree in journalism—in 1963. Alter graduation they moved to New York City, had a daughter, Susan (now 29 and an aspiring singer), and amicably divorced several years later. "Socially, politically we were very much in sync," says Hunter-Gault. "But Walter wasn't in much of a hurry, and I was. I was out to prove to the world I should be famous and not because I was black."
Following a stint as the first black staffer at The New Yorker in Manhattan, she worked from 1969 to 1978 for The New York Times, creating the post of Harlem bureau chief. Midway in her tenure she banged out a seismic, 11-page internal memo to the top editors protesting the fact that all her references to "black" were changed to "Negro, " and assailing the presumptions her white bosses made about blacks and black coverage. Within days the Times adopted the word black. "Nowadays it seems almost silly," says Hunter-Gault. "But it was one of those defining moments in the history of black journalism in major white institutions."
Looking for broader scope, she became a correspondent on MacNeil/Lehrer in 1978 and since then has interviewed such heavyweights as Norman Schwarzkopf and Yitzhak Shamir and even dodged Scud missiles in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. Over the years she has acquired a reputation as a sometimes spiky boss. "I've become more exacting as I've gotten older," she says. "But if I'm aware I've hurt somebody's feelings, it bothers me and I'll try to talk to them about it." Her astringency rarely shows up on TV. "She can be disarming as an interviewer, Southern and sweet, says friend Audrey Edwards, editor-at-large at Essence magazine. "She strokes rather than slashes, and it encourages subjects to drop their guard."
With all the interviews and book parties surrounding In My Place, Hunter-Gault has also been loosening up a bit. Recently Bill Cosby threw her a lavish, celebrity-packed do at his Manhattan town house, where Hunter-Gault chatted with Jacqueline Onassis about the fact that they both have large feel. Hunter-Gault describes herself as work obsessed, but friends say she has a strong relationship with her husband, Ronald Gault, 51, an investment banker-she married in 1971, and with her two children. (She and Gault have a son, Chuma, 20.) She loves tennis and is learning to ski.
Though racial progress at UGA has sometimes seemed as slow as Hunter-Gault on the slopes—today black enrollment is only 6 percent—she says she is "optimistic" about change there. But then Hunter-Gault has always had an appetite for combat. When she was told during her visit to Athens that some black students leave after a year because they don't feel welcome, she wasn't sympathetic. "If you retreat to remove struggle from your life, You are very mistaken," she says. "It's not over. It may never be over. But I find joy in that struggle."
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