History is often defined as what happened in the past, and, as my journalism professor said on the first day of class, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.” — Charlayne Hunter-Gault

On the 60th anniversary of the day she and another Black student desegregated the University of Georgia at Athens, Charlayne Hunter-Gault recalled the event in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, and shared some thoughts about what it means to make history.

And what it means to keep making it in an ongoing struggle in community with others.

Hunter-Gault and Hamilton Holmes, her high school classmate from Atlanta, began classes at UGA on Jan. 9, 1961. It was five years after Brown v. Board of Education, and they were encouraged by a Black activist group known as the Atlanta Committee for Cooperative Action. She recalled:

So they proposed that we apply to a local college in town. But to their surprise, we suggested an alternative: the University of Georgia. While it was some 70 or so miles from Atlanta, a journey riddled with K.K.K.-inhabited towns along the way, we were not deterred.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Though, really, the rest was only the beginning. History is often defined as what happened in the past, and, as my journalism professor said on the first day of class, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”

A civil rights activist herself and an award-winning journalist who reported mostly for public radio and television after she graduated from UGA, Hunter-Gault remembered that in later years:

In my five decades as a journalist bearing witness to the cyclical nature of our country’s history of racism and division, I’ve come to believe that my professor’s sentiment was his way of challenging us to not only learn from our history, but also to use our craft as journalists to help the public know our past, because the duty to remember does not belong to journalists alone. It’s only through this knowledge that we’re all able to make informed decisions about our lives — decisions that, in turn, affect our neighbors near and far.

Indeed, knowing our history inspired Hamilton and me to make our own: We had attended a high school named for Henry McNeal Turner, a pioneering minister and politician who was elected to the Georgia legislature during Reconstruction, a brief time in the 1800s when newly freed slaves were granted full citizenship and could vote for the very first time. We were reminded of that history every day as we walked through the school doors.

It was that history, and support from the Black community, that enabled Hunter-Gault and Holmes to stay in school during the contentious early days of desegregation, and Vernon Jordan, then a young lawyer and later an adviser to President Clinton and influential businessman, who in 1961 “helped lead us through the crowd of students yelling ugly racial epithets as we walked on campus to register for classes.”

And it gave her an ongoing commitment:

With this history in my head and heart, my path forward includes working to ensure that the doors of my alma mater are open even wider to Black students who, along with their classmates of all colors, will embrace this stated UGA goal: “to foster the understanding of and respect for cultural differences necessary for an enlightened and educated citizenry.”

We have many challenges ahead. There are times when, watching the news, I am brought to tears, not least when I see some of those I still think of as my fellow citizens, nevertheless exhibit awful behavior toward others who don’t look like them — the latest in the despicable behavior at the Capitol.

It is in these moments that I wonder: Why have they not learned from history? Is it because not all of our history is being taught in many schools around the country? And why is there no embrace of respecting differences of opinion?

As we make sense of these questions, history will continue to echo itself. …

Instead of answers, or a tidy conclusion, Hunter-Gault ended her op-ed piece with a question for her readers — and a school cheer:

And so as I reflect on the 60th anniversary of my university’s desegregation — as a Black person and a woman, as a wife and mother, as a sister, aunt and citizen — remaining true to my calling as a journalist, I leave you with the question: What can we all do to keep working toward a more perfect union? Go Dogs!

One thought on “Charlayne Hunter-Gault on making history, and the obligation to keep making it when no one seems to learn from it

  1. As the Massachusetts abolitionist Theodore Parker once wrote:” I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

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