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


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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.”

Cable then recited a famous quote attributed to King: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. “ (However, the Daily Planet later checked the quote on the internet for accuracy, finding that claims that there is no documentation that King ever said or wrote that famous statement for which he is credited. Instead, said it “appears to have been paraphrased from a speech he made in 1965.”)


Regarding Hunter-Gault, Cable said, “For 50 years, tonight’s speaker has been widely revered. She’s a prolific and distinguished author. Quite frankly, her storytelling has mesmerized generations. She has refused to be silent about things that truly matter....”


The chancellor then named — and spoke about — some of Hunter-Gault’s books, including her latest, which is an ebook called — “almost appallingly” — “”Collective Rape.” 


Cable noted that the keynote speaker’s journalism career, included “working for 20 years with the PBS News Hour. Most of you know how important that program has been” to the people’s understanding of the news.


“She later worked as the Harlem Bureau chief of the New York Times,” along with CNN, NPR and The New Yorker magazine. “She has won two Emmy awards and two Peabody awards,” Cable said. 


“Back to Dr. King, he also said, ‘An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.’” 


Cable ended her 10-minute introduction by saying, “I’m proud to introduce Charlene Hunter-Gault... You honor us tonight” as a model for Dr. King’s vision. “Your moral courage honors us.” At that, the crowd arose to give the speaker a lengthy standing ovation.


Hunter-Gault, who spoke for 55 minutes and then answered questions from the audience for 25 minutes, began by addressing Cable with a smile, “Nancy, in a way I could have listened to you all night…”


Then to the audience, she said, “I’m so pleased.. you heard a little bit about my life journey. it’s been a wonderful life journey and it never ceases to amaze me... I’m grateful to be here with you and in your space.


“I was so excited in fact, when I saw the dog on campus,” she said, playfullying referencing UNCA’s Rocky the Bulldog school mascot. “I wondered  — did you have to bring that (University of) Georgia dog,” in a refererence to her UGA alma mater. (The crowd laughed heartily at her good-natured teasing.)


Turning more serious, Hunter-Gault said, “You don’t have to have been really old and decrepit to be a witness to history.”


To that end, she said, “The head of the hip-hop program at Harvard told me I was ‘woke...’ That also leads me to say, engagement in the world inhibits aging.”


On a personal note, she said, “I’ve been protected by the (emotional) armor that has shielded me all of my life.” That armor has been critically important to help her cope as she has had to come to terms with “the history of my people from slavery to freedom.”


In an apparent reference to “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” a 1937 novel by African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston, Hunter-Gault said, “Zora had written about her character Jamie… It was important that they should find her and that she should find them.”


Hunter-Gault then tied Jamie to her own life, noting, “It’s important to me like Jamie that my journey that brought me here today. On that journey, I’ve been blessed. yes, I’m known as a “PK” — a preacher’s kid.” (The crowd laughed with the speaker as she poked fun at herself.)


“I have witnessed revolutions in my life, as a participant and as an observer. Each has enabled me to see the possbilities for peace and revolution.


While not specifically mentioning President Donald Trump and his administration, she added pointedly, “For such a time as this, where so many of the gains of our revolution are under threat,… while I’m concerned, I’m not disappointed. There have been other times where there have been challenges.”


Next, she spoke of driving to a grocery store recently when a song by the late Marvin Gaye (1939-1984) came on her favorite soul-music radio station.


Hunter-Gault noted that the song’s lyrics begin, significantly, “Mother, mother....” as she recited each line slowly and dramatically.:


 “Mother, mother


“There’s far too many of you crying


“Brother, brother, brother


“There’s far too many of you dying


“You know we’ve got to find a way


To bring some loving here today, eheh.” 


She added, “Then, he sings:”


 Father, father


“We don’t need to escalate


“You see, war is not the answer


“For only love can conquer hate


“You know we’ve got to find a way


“To bring some lovin’ here today, oh, oh, oh


“Picket lines and picket signs


“Don’t punish me with brutality


“Talk to me, so you can see....”


To the audience, a playful Hunter-Gault then asked, “And then he (Gaye) sang ... what?”


“What’s going on!” many in the crowd joyfully shouted out, as Hunter-Gault appeared delighted and amazed that a college audience in 2020 would know both the lyrics and the name of the 1971 Motown classic. (The album of the same name was the first-ever soul music concept album, with the entire record based around protest songs.)


The song “What’s Going On,” according to Hunter-Gault, “became known as the Negro National Anthem and, later, as the Black National Anthem.”


Hunter-Gault then quoted a passage from the poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938), a songwriter, literary critic, diplomat, poet, educator, author and lawyer:


“Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last


Where the white gleam of our white star is cast.”


Regarding her concern about people “being discouraged about what’s going on today,” she said that “history also is telling us to march on till victory is won.”


And she also cited words that she said King spoke: “The moral arch of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”


As for civil rights pioneer and U.S. Rep. Ron Lewis, who is confronting pancreatic cancer, she said, Lewis recently learned of his diagnosis, which shook him up, “ brave as he was facing police and mobs.” Hunter-Gault said Lewis endured “times of challenge and chaos and ugly racist behavior. He was so firm in his conviction that he felt segregation anywhere was wrong. He was prepared, as a young man, to die” fighting against segregation.


She told of how Lewis and other civil rights pioneers, on May 4, 1961, “wrote out their wills before boarding that bus. He (Lewis) probably did take more blows to his head than any other civil rights activist. He keeps on keeping on (today) despite his ailing body.”


After a pause, Hunter-Gault said, “Sometimes their wills had to be honored because they died fighting” for the cause.


Next, she shifted her focus, noting that “when we talk about whites, it is as if they all fit into one category. Do you know our history? Do you know who died for us?


She added that a number of the people fighting for civil rights for blacks in the United States were whites. To that end, Hunter-Gault said, “I challenge those who make generalizations about people. I was there when people gave their lives for us.”


Going back further into her past, she said, “One of my most enduring recollections about Martin Luther King (Jr.) came during my early years… I was really thrilled to see it repeated this week in a New York Times salute to Martin Luther King.


“It was in 1960, when Dr. King was encouraged for the first time in Atlanta to join the project of college students going out to risk their lives. Their slogan was: ‘Jail without bail.’


“Eventually, they would be let out” of jail. “But eventually, they said they would not leave jail,” even if officials agreed to release them.. “But some (black) adults didn’t like the idea of the students staying in the prisons with people, some of whom were murderers....”


Eventually, “when the deal was struck that would allow the students to go free, one of the people said, ‘Where’s Martin?’”


King had declined to leave the prison — a bold-but-dangerous move that gained the attention of the civil rights movement for the first time, she said. “He was going to go on to one of the worst times of his life,” Hunter-Gault recounted. “His hands were cuffed and his legs shackled — with a snarling police dog (placed) overtop him in the back seat ... all the way out to the Reidsville Prison. Yet, Dr. King not only survived, he kept on.”


King won supporters for his courage and near-martyrom — and eventually became leader of the U.S. civil rights movement, she said.


Hunter-Gault then recounted that, “as a student in the black schools before integration, we were given hand-me-down books from the white students, many with pages missing. But our parents and teachers worked hard to overcome the unequal distribution in our segregated schools.


“My father was off in the military, serving in a segregated Army. … Meanwhile, she won a school pageant and “I assumed the crown with such enthusiasm that my friends wondered when I wouldn’t wear it. I’d wear that crown every day. It would serve me well through time.”


To that end, she noted that King said, “Human beings should be judged not be the color of their skin, but by the content of the character.”


Switching tracks, Hunter-Gault said, “I’m going to use this word I don’t like to use, ‘There’s goes the nigger. Nigger go home.’ She noted that such epithets were hurled at her as she was walking across University of Georgia campus with civil rights pioneer Vernon Jordan, when she was the first black woman to enroll at the school in 1961. “I knew who I was. I knew I was a queen. I talk about the layers of armor that” she feels she needed to deal with American society. “It was the same armor I wore two nights later, when (white) students rioted outside of my dormitory.


“The girls (in their dorms) had been told to turn off their lights. I hadn’t been told, so I was easy to find. The crowd grew more and more hostile. A brick came through my window. Glass landed on my clothes in the suitcase that hadn’t been taken out of my suitcase. That’s where I should have been afraid, but I wasn’t because of the armor.


“The dean came and got me and walked me to the state patrol car” that was waiting nearby to take her away from the melee.


She added, “The next day we were asked by the media if we were afraid. I said, ‘I wasn’t afraid.’ 


“Later, when I heard in the back of my head what my sainted grandmother” used to say, in quoting Psalm 24:4 from the Bible:


“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil....”


Further, Hunter-Gault  said, “That’s why it’s so important to teach our children about such things. That way they’ll be able to stand up to any challenge they face.


“We were allowed to return to classes and (eventually) most of the walls of segregation came tumbling down. All this time when I walked alone, I didn’t walk alone.”


Next, she noted, “One day, on one of my visits home, some 73 miles from Athens (Ga.),” she visited a wondrous place — “it was called Sweet Auburn because there were so many successful black businesses there  also two very successful black churches.” (The Sweet Auburn Historic District is a historically African-American area, closely associated with the Civil Rights movement, located east of downtown Atlanta.)


While in Sweet Auburn, “I was awed by a chance meeting with Dr. King. It taught me about one his core values — humility.


“As I started to introduce myself, before I could get past my name, Dr. King began to reach for my hand, he said he knew who I was, how great it was to meet me and what a magnificent job I was doing ‘down there’” in the Deep South.


Further, King told her that “education was the key to our (blacks’) freedom. He then wished me success. Before I had a chance to respond and tell him how much he meant to me,” he was surrounded by other well-wishers and she had lost her opportunity.


“In 1963, I was watching the March on Washington, and Mahalia Jackson telling Dr. King to ‘tell them about the dream, Martin.’ My tears flowed. I could tell this was no ordinary spech. This was a speech that would take him — and us — to the mountaintop .... 


“What we didn’t know was that Dr. King also was preaching his own eulogy. He said, ‘I may not be there when you get there...’ He left us with (emotional) armor that we could wear” when conflicts — and challenges — arose.

Hunter-Gault added, King “said he had a dream that one day this nation would live out —that all men (and women) are created equal....

“He exhorted people to go back to the Deep South and also to the slums and ghettos of Northern cities....

“I try to figure out what dream Dr. King would be dreaming today,” if he were still alive.

“I don’t want to get that cocky. Let me say, I’d hope that Dr. King was not only enthused about reaching that mountaintop, but also going back and fixing problems in the Deep South and other places, where people are not treated fairly because of the color of their skin.”

After another brief pause, she asked, “Anybody seen (the film) ‘Just Mercy?’ I encourage you to see it if you haven’t. It tells the story about the disproportionate incarceration of black men.”

She spoke of a memorable headline — “From mass incarceration to mass deportation, our nation remains in denial” — that, in her view, tells the story of ‘what is going on.’

“Racism’s unique history is still the elephant in the room in this democracy... The question we must ask is do we want a color-blind democracy. People have suggestions for how we shall overcome.

“I spent 17 years on the African contnent. While living in South Africa,” she learned a Zulu word that means “I am who I am because of other people.”

What’s more, she said, “‘Death’ is not a word ever used in South Africa. They’ve talked themselves into their own solutions, but it’s a wonderful way to avoid paying psychologists.”

Hunter-Gault also said that it amazes her that “his (King’s) vision and dream would extend to the masses beyond our shores… And that he would be a part of the global movement.

“If Dr. King were alive today I’m sure he would be reminding us our currency in the world has been as a proud nation of immigrants. He would embrace them as they are not being embraced now ... the need, if not the imperative, to help their kinfolk back home, find seats at the table.

“I witnessed how new rules were being written to bring the masses out of poverty.

“They are being recorded by African journalists who have more freedom to be ‘woke.’”

She spoke of what she termed the “four D’s” of Africa — death, disease, disaster and despair

“There are miles to go, even in South Africa, the most advanced (nation) of Africa, I returned again (in 1990) when Nelson Mandela was released” from prison. “And while the country established a constitution that was one of the first to recognize gay rights. The dream is being deferred to many in South Africa. Many analysts have concluded that apartheid lives. Corruption exists in the highest level. But South Africa’s troubles are not unique on the econtinent.

:So I’d imagine Dr. King would encourage people to return to the continent — because it is the right thing to do and because it is in our national interest... One way to honor Dr. King is to do that.

“I despair when I hear the ugly, even racist,  rhetoric, which is now part of our national discourage. I was encouraged that there is a book that confronts this... There also is a label being attached to journalists. I consider myself (as a journaisti as) a servant of the people.

The term, which she did not name, “is being used not only in this country, which is where it came from, but it’s now being used all of this world, especially in countries governed by despots.”

She also spoke of “the ignorance that’s tearing our country apart.... While countries like China and India are investing heavily in education — a key to developing a strong, vibrant economy.

“What we’re talking about is developing a civil style, which, in it’s highest form, is love.”

As for the current state of affairs, Hunter-Gault said, “It’s not hopeful for the United States of America in 2020,” while holding out aspirations “for peaceful co-existance.”

Regarding the first black president, Barack Obama, she said, “I didn’t believe that Obama’s election would automatically lead us into a multi-racial society.”

Also, she noted, “While America has taken it’s knocks in the world” in the past few years, “Americans still need to hear about Dr. King’s dream.”

Further, Hunter-Gault said, “I consider myself privileged — if not blessed — to take the road less traveled.”

She added, “I want to close with this challenge to the young … You are the giants that will be talked about in another generation, at home and abroad. You are the ones equipped by the (emotional) armor provided by Dr. King…. 

“So my final question to you students here at this magnificent institution: What do you want that generation that comes behind you to say about you? Martin Luther King (Jr.) can help you with the answer.”

At the conclusion of her address and before the question-and-answer session, Hunter-Gault received yet another standing ovation.


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