Charlayne Hunter-Gault asks high schoolers to promote change

Charlayne Hunter-Gault held the attention of students. — Photo by Janet Hefler

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, an award-winning journalist and author, held students at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) spellbound with her remarks during a special assembly program last Friday.

Ms. Hunter-Gault vividly described some of her experiences as the first black woman to attend the University of Georgia and those of civil rights leaders, which she recounted in her book, “To the Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement.” Published in January 2012, the historical narrative is targeted at readers grade nine and up.

“The stories and the lessons in this book are that each of you have it within you to make a change,” she said.

Ms. Hunter-Gault recalled her fear the night a crowd erupted into violence outside her dorm room. When a rock shattered her window, she said she took comfort in remembering the words of the Twenty-Third Psalm, her grandmother’s favorite from the Bible.

“Every day in this democracy there are challenges to the notion that all men and women are created equal,” Ms. Hunter-Gault said. “And what you need to know from the stories I tell in this book are that you have the power, you have the capacity within you, even within your own school, to insist there be no bullying, to insist that everybody here is treated equally and respectfully, and to stand up for what you believe is right.”

She encouraged students to become aware of the names and stories of people who contributed to equal rights in America, and “the thousands of giants on whose shoulders we stand.” Ms. Hunter-Gault urged students who are old enough to exercise their right to vote, and those who aren’t, to encourage adults to do so.

She said it was not her job as a journalist to tell students how to vote, however. “What my job is, is to tell you that what happens in the future of this democracy is really dependent on you, because you are the giants on whose shoulders the next generation will stand,” Ms. Hunter-Gault said.

“Each of you has it within you to make a change,” she added.

The assembly program, with diversity as its theme, began with a student-produced video that portrayed a variety of students and faculty talking about their nationalities and ancestry. In senior Jacob Lawrence’s introductory remarks as the emcee, he told his fellow classmates, “If you get nothing else out of this assembly, I hope that you will develop just a new appreciation for the other cultures on this earth.”

Senior Isabella Hazell-El-Deiry, who initiated Friday’s program, described her experiences growing up with multi-culturism. “Multi-culturalism is an under the radar topic here at MVRHS,” she said. As a Martha’s Vineyard Youth Leadership Initiative delegate, Ms. El-Deiry attended a forum on race and diversity held last May at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center. She said she was sad to hear stories from students of different backgrounds who attend the high school.

“I wanted to do something about what we all know is happening and we can make it better for each other,” Ms. El-Deiry said. “My dream is that we’ll enjoy each other’s cultures and celebrate our differences and work together to build a better world.”

She called Ms. Hunter-Gault and invited her to speak to the high school students. Ms. El-Deiry has been selected to serve as a representative for Dukes County on the Governor’s Youth Council in 2013.

Among the highlights of Ms. Hunter-Gault’s 40-plus year career, she worked as a reporter for the New York Times, a national correspondent for the Public Broadcasting Service’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Johannesburg bureau chief and correspondent for CNN, and special correspondent for National Public Radio.

She and her husband, Ron Gault, own a home in Oak Bluffs.