Award winning journalist and author Charlayne Hunter-Gault has led a vibrant life – from her time at the University of Georgia, where as one of that school’s first two African American students she made national front page news, to writing for the New Yorker and the New York Times, to a 20-plus-year career as a broadcast journalist, during which time she won two Emmy awards for her reporting on Apartheid in South Africa.
Ms. Hunter-Gault will be sharing part of that story – specifically her involvement with the civil rights movement in the 1960s – at a talk at the Union Chapel on Thursday, July 12. The author’s reading and talk, which will be introduced by human rights activist, journalist, and poet Rose Styron, is a benefit for Island Elderly Housing’s Quality of Life Programs, which provide transportation, a weekly communal meal, and other socializing opportunities for the almost 200 seniors and disbabled Vineyarders residing in the organization’s subsidized housing.
Ms. Hunter-Gault has been spending time on the Vineyard for over 40 years. She and her husband, Ron Gault, now split their time between their home in Oak Bluffs and Johannesburg, South Africa.
The much laureled journalist generously gives of her time and talents to Island organizations, but is choosy about which events she takes part in. “I’m very careful about the ones that I do,” she told The Times. “I don’t want to be overloaded and I want to be effective. I tend to do things that are close to my heart. By choosing what comes naturally, I think I can be stronger in my advocacy.”
Ms. Hunter-Gault notes that she recently cared for both her own and her husband’s elderly mothers and that she has an understanding of the difficulties faced by the less privileged in society. “I have a natural affinity with the elderly,” she saids. “I grew up in the South. I know what it is not to have.”
Aside from her annual role as moderator for the W.E.B. Dubois panel discussion in August, the upcoming talk is the only speaking event she has scheduled for this summer.
She will however, be hosting a handful of book signings around the Island. Ms. Hunter-Gault recently published her most recent book, “To the Mountaintop: My Journey through the Civil Rights Movement.” The book, written for young people ages nine to 90, is a first-person narrative account. The author has published two other books. “As a journalist, I am not used to writing about myself. My first draft was a journalistic draft in which I reported on what was going on. My publisher said, ‘We want your story so that other young people can relate.’”
Ms. Hunter-Gault hopes her book will help fill an educational gap in this country. She said, “The Southern Poverty Law Center did a study a couple of years ago. Aside from Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, young people know nothing about the civil rights movement. The sweep of this historical moment is not in those libraries.”
At the Union Chapel, Ms. Hunter Gault will use her book to discuss the civil rights movement. “I’ll be reading a few of the passages that will help people understand the sacrifices that young people made to be where we are now,” she said.
The autobiographical account begins during Ms. Hunter-Gault’s senior year in high school, when she was chosen to apply to the all-white University of Georgia as a test of the ruling of the landmark Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954). Ms. Hunter-Gault went from an idyllic life as president of the honor society, school newspaper editor, and homecoming queen, to encountering verbal and physical attacks at the hands of racist students.
The rest of the book details pivotal events in the civil rights movement up until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as viewed through the perspective of a front lines journalist who broke many racial and gender barriers in her chosen field. To the Mountaintop, a New York Times book, includes many dramatic photos, headlines and news stories from that paper.
Ms. Hunter-Gault continues to cover relevant issues for a variety of influential publications. Describing a piece she wrote on the raping of lesbians in South Africa that recently appeared in the New Yorker, she said, “It’s important for conscientious people to be aware of the fact that there are these issues that continue that you can fight if you’re willing to commit yourself.
“We continue to have ongoing challenges, and we have to meet them. What the civil rights movement represents is people with the courage of their convictions willng to make sacrifices for what they believed in. That’s what came out of the civil rights movement and those are the basic values that I tried to put into the book so that it would be relevant today.”
Charlayne Hunter-Gault will be speaking on her new book, “To the Mountaintop: My Journey through the Civil Rights Movement,” at the Union Chapel, Oak Bluffs, on Thursday, July 12, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $35 in advance, $40 at the door, and can be purchased at Alley’s General Store, Bunch of Grapes Bookstore, and daRosa’s, or on-line at TicketsMV.com. All proceeds benefit IEH’s Quality of Life Programs.