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Charlayne Hunter-Gault's 'My People' looks back on her trailblazing career in journalism
William Brangham: Charlayne Hunter-Gault's trailblazing journalistic career has spanned more than 50 years. But, before that, she made news herself when she became one of two Black students to desegregate the University of Georgia in 1961.
She went on to become an Emmy Award-winning reporter working at several prestigious news organizations, including right here at PBS with "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour."
Charlayne recently spoke with Judy Woodruff about her reporting career, which is also the focus of her new book and the collection of her work. It's called "My People: Five Decades of Writing About Black Lives."
Judy Woodruff: Charlayne Hunter-Gault, welcome, and congratulations on the book.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: Thank you so much, Judy. It's so nice to be back home.
Judy Woodruff: Exactly.
And what a life you have had. What a career you have had a writing for all these organizations, The New York Times, "The New Yorker," and then, of course, coming to work with Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer and what was then "The MacNeil/Lehrer Report." That was back in the 1970s. This is really family for you, isn't it?
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: Yes, it really is. It's something else.
Judy Woodruff: For sure.
This is a book that is a collection of your writing, your reporting over the decades going back to the 1960s, after you became a part of American history, when you integrated the University of Georgia. And you were greeted with the worst kind of welcome by the students there.
Remind us in brief, Charlayne, about that experience for you and how it shaped the work that you would do later on.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: Well, actually, I was -- along with Hamilton Holmes, we were committed to use the university for both of our purposes that we started out with.
Hamilton wanted to be a doctor, and I wanted to be a journalist. And I really think that that commitment to our ambition was what enabled us to just ignore all the ugly things that were going around. It was so bad, for example, that Hamilton never stayed on the campus after he went to class. And his son told me that he never made a single friend, which is such a tragedy.
But we kept our eyes on the prize. And the prize was me being a journalist and Hamilton being a doctor, which he did indeed become.
Judy Woodruff: And you were not deterred by some of the really awful things that happened in those early days, when you were at the University of Georgia.
Charlayne, so many of the things that you write about here that date back to the '60s and the '70s and later are things that we are still seeing in this country today. And they have to do with the experience of Black people in this country with voting access, with education, with job opportunities, with police reform, interacting with the police.
Do you have the sense that some of these things have really not changed at all? How do you look at the fact that we are still dealing with some of the issues you were writing about decades ago?
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: Well, to be sure, what you have just stated is absolutely correct. And it's very painful.
But it has happened before, and we got past it. There are a lot of very successful African Americans, or, as we say, today, Black people with a capital B. But what continues to happen is the disproportionate impact of everything that's happening in this world on people of color, when you look at the COVID crisis, when you look at just all kinds of things.
I was looking at something today where people were having a hard time buying groceries and paying rent, and then the number of homeless people has increased. And so we get to a point where some people are successful, like all of us, my husband, who was a great banker, and so many others like him, and my dear friend Vernon Jordan, who helped me get into the University of Georgia, who is now one of our ancestors.
And you say, OK, we made progress, but we still have a way to go. And, sometimes, it looks like a long way. However, one more thing. I think that the effort that seems to be being made on the part of media people, media people in charge of media people, they're trying to bring in more people of color.
And I'm hoping that those people who are coming in, along with those who are already there and very conscious about these discrepancies, will make a big difference.
Judy Woodruff: And I wanted to ask you about that, because the news media has changed over the decades.
And I wanted to ask you, what more do we need to do to make sure we are covering the Black American experience, as we should be?
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: Well, I think we just have to talk about it more. And we have to keep it in the forefront.
People in positions like yourself and all of the other great journalists on the "NewsHour" need to continue to keep these discrepancies before the public.
I remember one of Jim Lehrer's great quotes. If you inform people with good information, they will do the right thing.
And so as I look at many of the programs on television today, they are doing just that.
Judy Woodruff: And, Charlayne, finally, I want to ask you about a theme that arises at several points in your writing in the book, and that is the need to teach young Black children about their history, about the real heritage, the things that they have faced, that their ancestors have faced.
Here we are, what is it, 60-some years later from one of the pieces you wrote, and we have this argument over what's called Critical Race Theory, with politicians saying that this is being taught in the schools, and it shouldn't be.
Do you think we have made progress in that regard when you look at the political debate right now over this?
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: Well, I think we need to have more information about how people are coming to these conclusions.
But we also have to continue to press the importance of Black history, our history, because that was our armor. And that is how so many of us have managed to succeed in our professions.
But it's critical for everybody who has an opportunity to speak to people in the public to say how important it is for everybody to know this history, so that we can come together and help make or help continue to make a more perfect union. It may not be totally perfect, but I think it'll be better than it is today.
Judy Woodruff: Well, we certainly understand better of the story and the stories of Black Americans in this country thanks to your book. It's "My People: Five Decades of Writing About Black Lives."
Charlayne Hunter-Gault, it's always good to have you on the program. Thank you.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: Thank you, Judy, for having me. And I'd love to be back in that studio one of these days.
Judy Woodruff: We can't wait for that to happen.