There was much to reflect on as I finished reading award-winning journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault’s “To the Mountaintop,” her account for a new generation of “post-racial” young Americans of her role as a brave, 19-year-old young woman integrating the all-white University of Georgia on January 9, 1961. (I turned 17 on that very day, a nervous college freshman studying for a chemistry test. Only years later did I learn what was really going on in America then; but I did make it to hear Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech at the unforgettable March on Washington in August 1963.)
Hunter-Gault begins her book with a description of her delight in attending the 2009 inauguration of our first black president, Barack Obama, and gracefully segues back into the convoluted history of racism in America and her good fortune in having been a beautiful and gifted honor student from an educated “race-conscious” family. As the best of the best, she was chosen by civil rights leaders along with fellow student Hamilton Holmes to break the color barrier at U. Georgia, the oldest public university in America (founded in 1785). Without regard for her own safety, she unhesitatingly agreed to put herself on the front lines and braved mobs of brick-throwing white protestors.
Highly condensed, this short volume is expressly tailored for readers aged 12 to 18 and details the success of her efforts and those of her many colleagues and mentors, such as the Rev. Dr. King, Vernon Jordan, James Farmer, John Lewis and Julian Bond. The bravery, discipline and determination of these iconic figures, along with untold others whose names and suffering will never be known, served to overcome segregation in education, housing and voting and paved the way for the historic presidency of Barack Obama, as he fully acknowledges. This brief account will surely send adults back to Hunter-Gault’s earlier book, “In My Place” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1992)—a very well-received, more detailed memoir—while younger readers will find it exciting to go to the websites listed in the index of this shorter memoir to explore the many pieces of original source material on the Internet.
As I sit here on January 15 (Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday), anticipating February 12 (Lincoln’s birthday) and the activities of Black History Month this February, I hope we will all reflect on the tough human qualities and decisions that have brought us this far in the fight for true equality in America. Will the protestors of Occupy Wall Street (whose general aims I support fully) have the discipline, organization and willpower to prevail in their struggle as well as Charlayne Hunter-Gault and her generation of black Americans succeeded in theirs? Can they muster the same passion and commitment?
I would welcome a piece of journalism by Hunter-Gault on how she perceives the next phase of politics in the United States. Can the remaining racial prejudice that still poisons our everyday life be eliminated? Seemingly, even the achievements of a brilliant, consensus-seeking black leader have not been enough to bring us over that second mountaintop.
The next generation will have to take over! The young multitaskers of today might consider pausing to read Charlayne Hunter-Gault—and absorbing some of her courage.
Note: I am pleased to disclose that WestView’s Maggie Berkvist was the photo editor on “To The Mountaintop,” locating the many historic images that illustrate the book. She told me that during her research she found in the Mississippi State Archives an extensive collection of police mug shots of the student activists, black and white, who had been arrested during the civil rights demonstrations and was struck by how very young most of them were—and by how brave they had been. Young people, take note: the world needs your energy and your idealism.
Barbara Riddle is a Greenwich Village native, a regular WestView contributor and the author of the novel “The Girl Pretending to Read Rilke” (recommended at www.lablit.com). Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or read her blog: www.poodlesontheroof.blogspot.com/.