Charlayne Hunter-Gault: Missouri protests are 'awful déjà vu' of her own time at UGA

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Charlayne Hunter-Gault: Missouri protests are 'awful déjà vu' of her own time at UGA

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the acclaimed journalist and the first African-American woman to attend the University of Georgia, said Friday she was struck by "an awful déjà vu" when reflecting on the recent campus protests at the University of Missouri.

Indeed, as she wrote in a new essay for the New Yorker, the Missouri protests, which students said were sparked by the administration's unsatisfactory response in the face of a series of racially motivated incidents on campus, echoed the injuries she faced as a student herself, at UGA, 54 years ago.

Hunter-Gault's brief essay is a catalogue of some of what she faced as one of two black students on campus sometimes surrounded by groups of racist white students.

One night, as Hunter-Gault remembered, a group of people, including students, massed outisde her dorm, shouting racial slurs. The official response was late-coming.

"The town police threw around tear gas, ostensibly to disperse an already-thinning crowd. By the time the state troopers arrived, the protesters were long gone," she wrote, adding that the school briefly suspended her "for, they said, my own safety."

Slurs were a regular occurance, as was the shouted label of "Freedom Rider," Hunter-Gault wrote — though "they didn’t realize they were complimenting me when they yelled (that) out."

The first semester, the "worst," died down into a string of what might now be known as microgressions, Hunter-Gault wrote: "The time I went to see if I could work on the school newspaper and was welcomed by the editor, but never got an assignment.

"Or when professors went a whole term without addressing me in class."

The second of the first two African-American students at UGA that year was named Hamilton Holmes, and he went on to be the first black student at Emory's medical school, and then the medical director of Grady.

But, Hunter-Gault wondered in her essay Friday, he may never have fully recovered from the things they endured as students. He died at 54.

"Now that I know about P.T.S.D., and as I cope with my own post-college problems with claustrophobia, I wonder if that didn’t have something to do with (his death)," she wrote.

She continued, "I still tear up when I speak of Hamilton, but have been comforted by the fact that the doors that were shut for so long to black students are now open." Her own career has spanned work at CNN, the New York Times, NPR and others.

But reading now about "the indignities faced by students of color" at Missouri, she wrote, "My stomach hurts again, and this time the origin is not so mysterious."

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