Brenda Starr, the glamorous, adventurous reporter featured daily during the 1950s and beyond in the comic strips in U.S. newspapers and around the world, first inspired Charlayne Hunter-Gault to pursue a career in journalism.
Ms. Hunter-Gault was a child when she first told her mother that she wanted to be the blue-eyed red head who traveled the globe.
“OK, if that is what you want to do,” Ms. Hunter-Gault recalled being told by her soft-spoken mom, even though the prospects of working for The New Yorker and The New York Times, two of her former employers, were virtually nil at the time.
That astounding ambition eventually led to her becoming an award-winning reporter and author, she told attendees at a luncheon at the Biltmore Hotel on Feb. 5, where the Georgia Institute of Technology honored her with the Ivan Allen Jr. Prize for Social Courage.
Ms. Hunter-Gault netted two national news and documentary Emmy Awards and two George Foster Peabody Awards during a career that eventually included working as the Africa correspondent for National Public Radio and as South Africa bureau chief for CNN.
But the Georgia Tech award focused primarily on her and Hamilton E. Holmes‘ historic roles as the first black students to integrate Georgia’s University System.
Among her credits are her interviews with African leaders including with Nelson Mandela after he was released from 27 years of imprisonment in South Africa and once he was elected president. She also is known for an interview that she conducted in Harlem with members of the Black Panthers where she honed her sense of providing unbiased reflections of what she saw and heard. Among her authored works is “New News Out of Africa: Uncovering Africa’s Renaissance,” which was published in 2006 and provides a heartening profile of the continent’s future.
In her remarks during the luncheon she said that her experiences with Mr. Mandela helped her to forgive the racial derogatory epithets and oppression she experienced in Georgia, especially that of Gov. Ernest Vandiver for his opposition to the University of Georgia’s integration.
Angel Cabrera, Georgia Tech’s president, praised the recipients for continuing the legacy of Ivan Allen Jr., Atlanta’s mayor during the 1960s, when they enrolled at UGA in January 1961.
Dr. Holmes received the award posthumously and was represented at the ceremony by his son, Hamilton Holmes Jr.
Their controversial court-ordered enrollment was ill received in many quarters on the UGA campus. Many other colleges in the system, however, began planning their own desegregation — including Georgia Tech, which accepted three black students months later without a court order.
Ms. Hunter-Gault downplayed the role that courage played in her career, saying at the luncheon that she credited determination as more important and a desire “to give voice to the voiceless.” She also praised her family and ancestors for outfitting her with “the armor” she needed to survive. “We received a first-class sense of ourselves,” she added.
She also gave credit where credit was due, recalling the work she did for the Atlanta Inquirer, an upstart newspaper when she was still in school started by Clark College professor M. Carl Holman and Morehouse College student Julian Bond to cover the growing Atlanta student movement.
Tom Johnson was at the UGA student-led newspaper the Red and Black when Ms. Hunter-Gault joined the staff. Many years later he became the president of CNN. He was among the panelists at the Georgia Tech awards ceremony, along with Valerie Boyd, “associate professor and the Charlayne Hunter-Gault distinguished writer in residence” at UGA. So were fellow journalist Alexis Scott, and Dr. Jim Bootle the son of Judge William Bootle, who as a federal judge in Macon set in motion the legal decisions to integrate UGA.
Ms. Hunter-Gault mentioned that she had been inspired by Ida B. Wells, an African American investigative journalist, educator and an early leader in the civil rights movement, and Zora Neal Hurston, the author, anthropologist and filmmaker.
“The Ivan Allen Prize comes at a time when we journalists need all the support we can get to withstand the outrageous attacks on a profession that have never been more needed than now,” she added.
Ms. Hunter-Gault also called for more attention to be given to African American and African history in U.S. schools and recognized that her comments were made during Black History Month.
The Ivan Allen Jr. Prize for Social Change recognizes those around the world who, by standing up for clear moral principles in the social arena, have positively affected public discourse — at the risk of their careers, their livelihoods and even their lives.
Former recipients of the prize include Andrew Young, former Atlanta mayor, U.S. congressman and ambassador; Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, former U.S. president and first lady; Nancy Parish, humanitarian activist; Beatrice Mtetwa, human rights defender; John Lewis, U.S. congressman; Dr. William H. Foege, leader in global health policy and Sam Nunn, former U.S. senator and leader on national security. The Sam Nunn School of International Affairs is located in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts at Georgia Tech.
For more information about the award ceremony, send an email to Joshua Stewart, media relations representative, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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