Journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who drew on a deep personal well of courage to integrate the University of Georgia in 1961, says young people today need to realize political and social change is not achieved at Twitter pace but through hard work leavened by time.
Hunter-Gault will draw on her story and the stories of others who stepped up at crucial times in history when she opens the President’s Leadership Dialogue tonight at the University of South Carolina.
Her message: Democracy is a work in progress and must be nurtured generation by generation.
“We have to communicate the importance of, as we used to say in the old days ‘Keep on keepin’ on,’ ” said Hunter-Gault, speaking this weekend from her home in Johannesburg, South Africa. “If those young people who were involved in the civil rights movement — who were beaten to the ground in Selma and thrown in jail in Birmingham, and who were set alight during the Freedom Rides and knocked in the head at lunch counters — if they had said, ‘Oh, well, I thought this one time around was going to change everything,’ then nothing would have happened. But they kept coming back.”
Hunter-Gault, who has covered Africa for CNN, NPR and PBS’ “The Newshour with Jim Lehrer,” has written a new book, aimed at readers 12-18. She intertwines the chronicle of her own battle to integrate the University of Georgia with critical moments that define the civil rights era.
She opens “To the Mountaintop: My Journey through the Civil Rights Movement” with the inauguration of Barack Obama as the nation’s first black president, an election result that would have seemed unimaginable to those who endured the indignities of Jim Crow segregation and the beatings of the civil rights era.
So when she hears that four years after 2008, young people are discouraged by what they see as incremental progress, Hunter-Gault reminds them of the country’s 200-year journey from slavery to freedom. “Yes, we didn’t get the nirvana that was promised to us in 2008, but why do we stop working to achieve a better society and holding leaders accountable?” she said.
That fits with Pastides’ vision of nurturing leadership across all aspects of the university to benefit the state and nation, said Kevin Elliott, a philosophy professor who leads the Carolina Leadership Initiative. The initiative, and the recently developed Carolina Leadership Summit, builds on opportunities that have been available for a number of years through the university’s Office of Leadership Programs.
“President Pastides has used the expression of raining down a range of different leadership activities on campus,” determining what will take root and what won’t, Elliott said. Pastides hopes student leaders will graduate and begin to make changes in their own communities that will lead to improvements in areas such as education and health care.
“It’s producing the kind of students who will engage in a lifetime of this kind of commitment to effective, positive change,” Elliott said.
Hunter-Gault thinks everyone has the capacity to be a leader, but she also credits family and teachers with nurturing her capacity to dream of being a journalist like one of her favorite comic-strip characters, Brenda Starr.
“My mother just instinctively knew that dreams propel ambition,” she said. So did her teachers.
“During the years of segregation, even though our teachers and others couldn’t give us first-class citizenship because, of course, they did not have the opportunity at that point, they gave us a first-class sense of ourselves,” Hunter-Gault said. “They just instinctively seemed to know how important it was to make us feel hope and not let us be diminished by the current mores and cultures of the South.”
Hunter-Gault said even though today’s economy is tough and the cost of college high, young people who exit college are fueled with a sense of mission and a desire to give back.
“Those of us who are in positions to encourage and maybe even inspire young people, we have to keep talking to them and keep giving them hope. I’m all for dreaming and inspiring.”