Hunter-Gault recalls first steps onto white campus

For CNN reporter Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the foam and fury of the political transition in South Africa contains echoes of her years at the University of Georgia (UGA), which today celebrates the 40th anniversary of its desegregation. Ms. Hunter-Gault was one of the first black students to attend the school.

She looked back at the time in a recent telephone interview:

What are your memories of that first night in the University of Georgia dorm?

In a real sense, those events helped to motivate my life. I remember walking under that archway [onto the campus], that it was a brisk January day, the coat I was wearing, the kind of blouse, socks, and boots. We were children of the black middle class, taught to present ourselves to the world as well turned out as we could.

The media will call me a pioneer, but I had a life before I went to the University of Georgia. And my values were already formed. But this was the test of all that armor that our family and our community had been piling on us through our values passed on to us through school and church.

What's most significant about that time?

UGA was the bastion of the old order. Everyone who protected and defended and perpetuated the old order went there. So for it to fall, led to every other bastion falling in its wake.

By the fall of 1961, high schools and elementary schools were being desegregated. It just opened up the whole state. I'm not sure I realized it was going to be that big. If I had thought about it, it might have been daunting. We did instinctively what we had to do to get through the rough patch, just get through the day. Then things got better. Not perfect. But you could go for days without someone yelling a nasty epithet at you.

You see, you don't want a color-blind society. You want one that accepts you for who you are. So you don't do something like this to make history, you do it to change things. I did it to change from having us be extraordinary because we went to school - which was a bit ridiculous because everybody went to school - to having us be ordinary.

What's your impression of then-Gov. Ernest Vandiver and other politicians from that period?

I didn't much appreciate them at the time, but I appreciate their change of heart. One of the rallying cries at the time was, you can't legislate morality. I thought, Yeah, that's right, but if you legislate what is right, the morality will follow in society. You've got to start somewhere.

What do you think of the use of affirmative action in admissions?

I think what's important for people to be aware of is this context: Only 6 percent of the [21,000] students at UGA are African-American, and this is after 40 years. Yet there are 36 percent minorities in the state.

What you're looking at is historical patterns and practices of discrimination against blacks that ended legally when I entered UGA. We have the same thing in South Africa. We have this seven-year-old country, and they're in the middle of some pretty painful debates and they have race on the front burner. In [South Africa], affirmative action isn't a dirty word - it's government policy. So I'm very curious to see how this plays out.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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