Journalist and civil rights icon Charlayne Hunter-Gault was the headline speaker Thursday at Albany State University's Martin Luther King Day Convocation. Hunter-Gault was the first black woman to be admitted to the University of Georgia in 1961 and used that experience and education to embark on a remarkable career.
ALBANY, Ga. -- CNN correspondent and Emmy winner Charlayne Hunter-Gault was in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1990 when Nelson Mandela was released from prison. She recalls the moment as one of the highlights of her long career in journalism.
As the headline speaker Thursday at Albany State University's celebration of Martin Luther King's birthday, Hunter-Gault drew parallels between America's civil rights struggle and the fight against apartheid in South Africa.
"I was there the moment Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years," Hunter-Gault told the gathering. "It was a wonderful moment and something that will stick with me forever. The Albany Movement, in many respects, was a training ground for the civil rights movement, and I am blessed to have seen the power of activism of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movements in the American south and in South Africa."
Hunter-Gault said she was delighted to see activism return to college campuses all over the country in 2008 when young people banded together to help elect President Barack Obama.
"My grandfather always said that education was the key to our liberation and our values, which are timeless and transcendent," she said.
As the first black female admitted to the University of Georgia in 1961, Hunter-Gault has an activist past, and it was a previous past that helped get her through some tumultuous early months in Athens.
"When I was in high school, my mother and grandmother helped raise money for the school. The girl who raised the most money was crowned 'queen of the school,' and I won," she recalled. "I got a crown and wore it everywhere. It protected me like armor."
She needed that armor her first week at Georgia.
"As I walked into my dorm, I had to walk through a crowd of white students," Hunter-Gault said. "They were yelling 'N..... go home!' I was confused and was looking around for the n...... Then I realized it was me.
"But I was wearing my crown and my armor. I was still queen of the school, so they could not hurt me. After that I was always wearing my crown."
Hunter-Gault turned that experience into a remarkable career and a deep appreciation of democracy.
The UGA graduate worked as an investigative reporter and anchor at WRC-TV in Washington, D.C., and as a reporter at the New York Times, where she specialized in covering the urban African-American community.
After joining The MacNeil/Lehrer Report as a correspondent, she became The NewsHour's national correspondent. She also worked in Johannesburg as National Public Radio's chief correspondent in Africa.
"Democracy is messy. Democracy is difficult," she said. "It's up to us to make it true to its promise. You have to be vigilant every day. Never forget that dreams propel ambition. ... They made my journey possible."
Hunter-Gault then encouraged the crowd to become engaged with the world.
"Look at where the challenges are and find your place within your sphere of existence," she said. "You have to engage; we can't be insular. Read as much as you can. You cannot call yourself an intelligent person if you get all your news on TV.
"The demographics of this country are shifting. Never forget that Martin Luther King wanted us to live as equals in order to form a more perfect union."