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UNCA keynoter: MLK Jr.’s model provides ‘armor’ to survive, thrive
Monday, 03 February 2020 12:41

By JOHN NORTH

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Charlayne Hunter-Gault addressed a full house during her keynote speech that highlighted UNC Asheville’s Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Week on Jan. 21 in UNCA’s Highsmith Student Union’s Blue Ridge Room.

About 400 people filled all of the seats, leaving standing-room-only. The crowd appeared to be racially diverse, with an unusual mix of mainly college students and retirees.

Kate Johnson, UNCA’s director of the Key Center for Community Engaged Learning, opened the event by welcoming everyone, noting that Hunter-Gault and her address “is guaranteed to inspire us all.”

Johnson also noted that, earlier that afternoon, more than 50 students and others, engaged in a masters class with Hunter-Gault.

Following Johnson, UNCA Chancellor Nancy J. Cable , who gave a lengthy introduction of Hunter-Gault, began by noting that the night’s event focused on “Dr. Martin Luther King (Jr.), who we should commermorate and celebrate today… and every day.”

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UNCA’s MLK Jr. keynote speaker fields questions
Monday, 03 February 2020 12:31

From Staff Reports

Charlayne Hunter-Gault fielded questions from the crowd for about 25 minutes after giving the keynote address of UNC Asheville’s Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoratoin Week on Jan. 21 in UNCA’s Highsmith Center’s Blue Ridge Room.

The first person to address Hunter-Gault in the Q&A said she did not have a question, but rather a comment. Specifically, the unidentified woman said she was a student at the University of Georgia in 1961 — and “I’m still in awe of the courage that keeps you going.”

“I love the word ‘courage,’ but I feel it was more determination,” Hunter-Gault replied with a smile.

A young woman then asked, “What was the name for the journalists?”

“Oh, you mean, ‘fake news,’” Hunter-Gault said. “You wanted me to say it.”

An older man asked about both the book and the recently released movie titled “Just Mercy”  — and whether she agreed that its author Byan Stevenson is amazing.

She agreed and then Hunter-Gault said, “Sometimes tonight I went too far. I try to stay ‘the servant of the people’ and not an ‘advocate.’”

As for films, she added, “Last year, we took a group of schoolchildren (from Atlanta) to see ‘Black Panther.’ And this year we took them to ‘Just Mercy....’ 

“I kept thinking about the age at which children are so impressionable to see a movie like this. So I’m going back to Sarasota with an idea. I’m going back to propose that we take the same group of middle-school kids to see Montgomery (Alabama, a key site of civil rights battles). I just think we need to embrace our young people who are getting so much bad information.”

A young man asked, “As a student at UNC Asheville, I just wanted to thank you for being here today…. What is your take on historically black colleges and universities and what do we lose,” if they shut down?

“I think it’s a challenging time for such schools, she replied. “Some have discovered how to survive and prosper. In far too many situations, the alumni do not give back. I think it’s a very important thing for the graduates of these institutions to give back. … So many of these young people could not have made it without the grounding they get in these schools.”

An older woman asked , “You’ve moved between two countries with problems…. I’m wondering what it’s meant in your life to move between those two countries. How what you’ve learned here affected your life in South Africa and what there affects your life here? What can we learn between your travels between the two countries?”

“I tried to address that in my speech,” Hunter-Gault replied. “I learned a lot. I think we as Americans have almost a moral obligation to be involved. I recently met with three South Africans and they’re despondent about what’s going on in their country. The majority of the people there are young people and, if they’re not educated, what’s going to happen?”

She mentioned asking F.W. de Clerk, who served as state president of South Africa from 1989 to 1994, later, “about how he feels about being out of power. He said he wasn’t worried ‘because a liberation movement never succeeded.’ So that worries me.

“If you think South Africa can go down the tubes without affecting our country,” one would be wrong “because frustrated young people are going to go somewhere. Civil society had a really hard time for a while, but they’re coming back somewhat now.”

She added, “So my husband and I have maintained our relationships with South Africans. We still feel like we’re very much a part of that country. We still have the spirit of ‘ubuntu.’ We need to be engaged. (“Ubuntu” is a Zulu word that roughly translates as “humanity towards others,” the New World Encyclopedia noted.)

What’s more, Hunter-Gault said, “That’s a tough question, but I don’t think I answered it well. We have to stay engaged – not only in our own country, but in others as well.”

A young woman said that, in looking around, she saw a large age gap at Hunter-Gault’s keynote address. 

To that Hunter-Gault said at least two questions need to be raised : “What does your young generation think of ours? And do you think it needs changing?”

Further, she said, “I don’t think you can generalize. Look at the young people with Bernie Sanders — and he’s a hundred years old. (The crowd laughed at her age estimate for Sanders. For the record, Sanders is 78 years old.)

“No, he’s not 100 years old,” Hunter-Gault said with a smile. “I often get sad when I see how little communication there is between the younger and older generations. “

For many older participants in the civil rights ovement, “a  lot of it (the generation gap) was fear for their children and concern that they would be hurt, if not killed, which in some cases they were.

“I say, ‘but wait a minute. A lot of us are “woke.’” People on different sides of the political spectrum need to learn how to communicate. I think each of our generations have something to offer the next generation. I mean, you learn everything you know on Twitter. You don’t read…. We’re not getting good information ... We used to present news that could be used by intelligent people.

“How do we get good news that people can use? Not only for themselves, but for their communities and societies. I’m hoping young people will reach out.”

At that point, Hunter-Gault returned to the amazement of the Sanders phenomenon. “I’m just amazed at the popularity of Bernie Sanders with young people. “ (Again, the crowd laughed.)

In closing the Q&A, she asserted that “she doesn’t speak about politics publicly.

“We’ve got to live together” is what I’m playing from Marvin Gaye’s aforementioned hit song, ‘What’s Going On.’ We have to learn to live together and talk across age, race, generation and class — and that’s your challenge, my dear,” Hunter-Gault said.

 



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