In his lifetime, we watched from afar and marveled. It is only now, in celebrating him as an historical figure, that Americans are reminded of his connection to their own racial odyssey during those momentous years.
On the PBS NewsHour, much of the tribute to Mandela’s passing is taken up by his interviews over the years with Charlayne Hunter-Gault, now 71, a remarkable American journalist who, to those of us who knew her, embodied our own racial struggles and went on to celebrate his.
Daughter of a US Army chaplain, in 1961 Charlayne Hunter became part of the civil rights movement when, after court battles, she and Hamilton Holmes became the first two African-American students to enroll in the University of Georgia and were met by jeering crowds who, after smashing her dormitory windows with bottles and bricks, had to be dispersed by tear gas.
Naturally she was suspended “for her own safety” but returned to campus by a court order days later.
She graduated in 1963 after meeting and marrying a fellow journalism student secretly, because he was white and they could have been prosecuted under existing Southern laws against miscegenation. They had a child and the marriage ended amicably when she moved to New York to start a journalism career that would span reporting for the New York Times to PBS.
After winning awards, she moved to South Africa in 1997 and her life work fused with Mandela’s in the remarkable interviews now being seen on the PBS tribute to him.
Now in the New Yorker Hunter-Gault recalls: “I interviewed Mandela in 1994, a few days before he was to be sworn in as President of the Republic of South Africa. I apologized to him for not being able to be at the inauguration itself, explaining that there was hardly anything on earth that would make me miss that historic occasion, but that my son Chuma was graduating from Emory University, in Atlanta, on the same day. And I needed to fly back for it. At that, Mandela relaxed his stiff, about-to-be-interviewed posture, leaned forward slightly in his chair, and smiled, with an enveloping warmth.
“’Of course you have to be there. You can always interview me,” he said.’
“I found myself responding, ‘Thank you, Tata’-—just what a child of Mandela would have called him.”
Those of us who watched from afar are reawakened and heartened by reliving Nelson Mandela’s story and reminded of his American counterpart, Martin Luther King, and a journalist, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, whose own life was touched by both.