By Charlayne Hunter-Gault
IT’S difficult for me to remember exactly when I first met Calvin Trillin, not because it was thirty years ago when our paths first crossed but because my first two days at the University of Georgia as one of its first two black students, admitted by federal court order, were the closest thing to a surrealistic dream I have ever experienced—starting with the first moment I set foot on the campus, walking through its black wrought-iron entrance gates past a boisterous, if not hostile, crowd of white humanity.
It was my impression that most of the people in the crowd were Georgia students, but there were also a lot of reporters, and I’d be willing to bet that Calvin Trillin was moving quietly and unobtrusively among them. That was his way—a way that allowed him to hear and see things that others often didn’t, because no one suspected that he was listening and watching. It was a natural demeanor—owed no doubt to his native Missouri—that allowed him to exploit the inclination of the whites around him who assumed that all decent God-fearing people (as opposed to “them damn Yankee outsiders in the press”) were on the same side and that you could feel free to say whatever was on your mind at the time, including things like “make way for the nigger” as I walked through the crush.
It was the same everywhere I went in those first couple of days. Students yelling epithets, reporters shouting questions. And me trying my best to look straight ahead to where I was going.
But as caught up as I was in getting from one place to the next without stumbling or otherwise losing my dignity, I was also trying to see out of the corner of my eye exactly what the reporters were doing and how, because, after all, that was why I had pressed this case and was now on this campus in the middle of this throng. I wanted to be a reporter; Georgia had the only school of journalism in the state, and here I was at the center of one of the biggest stories in the country, if not the world. I wanted to see how the real pros did it.
I watched the reporters in action around me on the campus and listened carefully to the questions they put to me. I didn’t get to watch the televised reports. In those days, I didn’t know of any black women, or men for that matter, working for any white newspapers or in television. All the serious journalists I knew worked in print. I knew there had to be some serious journalists in television, but one incident colored my impression of all of them, at least for the time being. It happened one day when a network correspondent arrived at a location on campus where I had been briefly surrounded by a crowd of jeering students. The incident was all over by the time he got there, and I had long since gone. But not to be outdone by the television crews on the scene at the time, this correspondent asked the students who were there to reenact the scene. They obliged. In those days, stories like that made my blood boil and made me even more committed to print. Obviously, I’ve changed my mind about television, but not about that kind of television journalism.
For a while, I didn’t have any favorites among the reporters. Lillian Smith, author of the classic southern novel Strange Fruit, had come to Athens and interviewed me for a national magazine. I enjoyed meeting her, because I had read her powerful book about lynching and I liked many of her observations about injustice and racial inequality. But, I was uncomfortable with the way she interviewed me. She would make a statement like, “Well, I think it’s the women of the South who are the ones that will change things, don’t you?” And I was worried—perhaps overly so—that if I agreed, the quote would then go into my mouth. It wasn’t something I could be sure of; but since most of the conversation consisted of her views, I was more than a little worried about what she was going to quote from me. Maybe it was just her style. She was, after all, a novelist. This was one of the many interviews that helped convince me that, when I became a journalist, I would keep my views to myself.
Then, too, Autherine Lucy, the first black student admitted to the University of Alabama five years earlier, had been expelled for publicly criticizing that university. And “Hamp” (Hamilton Holmes) and I had been warned by our attorneys to be careful. No one wanted some bogus issue to derail our legitimate claim that we had been denied admission on the basis of race.
I mostly read the Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Constitution, but I also read Time magazine. I’m sure I hadn’t met Calvin Trillin when he filed his first pieces. They had been written in the aftermath of the weeklong December ’60 trial in Athens where Federal Judge Bootle heard our case that had been pending since 1959, our senior year in high school. The other was a January 13 piece called “Break in Georgia,” where Time reported that Judge Bootle had “ordered the University to admit immediately a ‘qualified’ Negro boy and girl,” pointing out that “their entry will crack the total segregation of all public education, from kindergarten through graduate school, in Georgia—and in Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina, as well.”
The five-paragraph story in the education section seemed to have the facts right, but in that report I mostly liked the picture of myself seated next to Hamp. And there was nothing in those reports that struck me enough to want to meet the reporter.
But one day, shortly before eight o’clock on a cold January morning, trench coat flapping in the wind, hair falling down over his eyes (he had more hair in those days), notebook in hand, and a gentle smile as he caught my eye, Calvin Trillin stood waiting as I went to my psychology class in Meigs Hall, campus escorts in tow.
He introduced himself as “Bud” Trillin—I don’t think I’ve ever heard him or anyone else who really knew him call him Calvin—and it seemed the perfect name for this completely unpretentious and self-effacing “man from Time.” In fact, I think it was his lack of airs, of self-importance, that led me to trust him almost immediately. He may have had views of his own, but he always seemed more interested in mine. And in those days, at nineteen, I had plenty!
That night a crowd assembled outside my dormitory at Center Myers Hall and began chanting things like “Two-four-six-eight! We-don’t-want-to-integrate!” and “Nigger go home.” While I wasn’t prepared for that, it didn’t surprise me either. It had happened at other schools going through the same transition—Little Rock, University of Alabama—and besides, I was still in that surreal, dreamlike state.
It was my first night on campus and, just as I had approached my first day, I was trying to treat it as routinely as possible. Still, I was startled when someone knocked on my door and announced that I had a phone call.
I didn’t know what to think, and in that moment a thousand thoughts rushed through my head. . . . Who knew how to call me at Center Myers? I didn’t even know the number myself. Maybe my mother. Or Don Hollowell, one of my attorneys and the one I was closest to. Or Carl Holman, the Clark College English professor-turned-activist who helped us prepare our applications so that the University could not find anything to suggest we were not qualified—like an undotted i or an uncrossed t. As Trillin was to report, the Georgia officials had asked Hamp if he had ever visited a house of prostitution or a “beatnik parlor” or “tea house.”
So I stepped outside my room to the phone in the hall with some trepidation and picked up the receiver.
“Hi. It’s Bud. How’d you like to have a pastrami sandwich?”
I was too relieved for words. All I could do was laugh.
“You having a good time in there, kiddo?” he asked, and of course I unburdened my soul. In the end, I declined the pastrami sandwich, but I went back to my room feeling that I had a friend out there somewhere.
I saw Bud a lot over the next few weeks, and I read what he reported—the riot that erupted the night after his call; our suspension “in the interests of [our] own safety and the safety of the more than 7,000 students at the University,” as Time was to report it; the court order readmitting us; the aftermath—but I especially liked how Bud had woven that psychology class I attended after first meeting him with the events that later unfolded.
He wrote: “In her first class at the University of Georgia last week, pretty Negro coed Charlayne Hunter, 18, heard a psychology lecture on human behavior. The subject was timely, for that morning she and Hamilton Holmes, 19, breached a sorry human behavior barrier: the 175 year old tradition of segregation at the campus in Athens.”
Every now and again during those difficult days, Bud would catch me on the fly and ask me why I wanted to go to journalism school. A good journalist has to be able to write, first and foremost, he would argue. Why didn’t I just major in English as he had done at Yale and, like him, learn the rest of the job?
But I was learning . . . and much of what I was learning about being a good reporter was from Bud’s example. In fact, Bud Trillin may have been my first real role model, Brenda Starr being the actual first. From Bud Trillin I learned lessons that have been invaluable to me as I have gone about the business of being a reporter and becoming a journalist, a process that is ongoing.
I learned from Bud that reporters have to go where the story takes them, whether into the middle of an angry white mob or to the pew of a black church in some out-of-the-way southern town during an over-long civil rights rally—listening and observing, ever alert to the ridiculous or the sublime. (Bud, by the way, was best at being alert to the ridiculous, especially when it involved language. For example, he loved the mixed metaphor of some anonymous segregationist who described the desegregation order as “ . . . the long arm of judicial tyranny grinding us under the heel of its boot.”)
I also learned from Bud that a reporter doesn’t have to be distant to be fair; and that it helps to have a sense of humor, as well as a sense of history; and that there’s nothing wrong with using your own moral compass, right along with your note pad and pencil. (I never saw Bud use a tape recorder. I think he thought they were for sissies.)
After things settled down on campus, Bud returned to Atlanta, where he was based, and eventually to New York City. We stayed in touch. Once when I had a project to do for one of my journalism classes, I called him—collect, of course—and asked him to have Time send me a bunch of promotional materials. I was designing an ad campaign to sell Time on Mars. Bud thought it was a dumb idea and told me so, but a few days later I was inundated with stuff from Time’s promotion department. I got an A-plus on my project. Dazzled ’em with props.
When Bud told me he wanted to return and write a book about our two-and-a-half years at Georgia, I wasn’t in a very good mood. Every now and then, the isolation of the place just got to me, even without anybody bothering me directly. Bud was one of the few people I felt I could let my guard down with, so I told him to come on, as much for my own therapy as for his project.
Some months later, I flew to New York for an interview at the New Yorker offices. The editor, William Shawn, and the editor in charge of hiring, Leo Hofeller, had been following my days at Georgia and knew of my desire to become a reporter. Many young men and women just out of college—in the New Yorker’s case, it was usually Bryn Mawr or Vassar, Harvard or Yale, or some other “good” Eastern school—were hired as editorial assistants or other low-on-the-totem-pole jobs. It was then up to them to demonstrate their other capabilities. When I went for the interview, I was told that I too would have to start at the bottom but that I could rise as high as my talents could take me. The rest of the time we spent talking about what my life had been like the past two-and-a-half years.
Close to lunchtime, Mr. Hofeller’s phone rang and the call was for me. It was Bud. Before leaving Georgia, I had called him and made arrangements to see him when I finished my interview. He was calling now because he was worried that something might have happened to me. When I hung up, I explained to Mr. Hofeller who Bud was, told him about his plan to take leave from Time to do the book about Hamp and me, and mentioned why Bud was calling. I also sang his praises as a good reporter.
“As fate would have it,” I remember Bud saying on the phone a few weeks after I had returned to Georgia, “the New Yorker is going to run the book as pieces before it’s published and this is going to be my first piece as a staff writer for the magazine.”
I couldn’t believe it. Fate indeed!
Not long after that, sitting behind my desk at the New Yorker, stuffing rejection slips into envelopes and daydreaming about becoming a “Talk of the Town” reporter, one of the fact-checkers showed up with a galley proof that contained the first of the three installments of “An Education in Georgia.”
I read it with both trepidation and relish, and when I had finished I knew that I had done the right thing. Bud Trillin had told a story that captured a turning point in the history of the South. And he had told it through the people who had lived it, black and white, good, bad, and in between. There were many wonderful things about “An Education in Georgia,” including facts I had not known that detailed the lengths to which the state of Georgia had gone to prevent Hamp and me from getting the education we were entitled to have. But I think the real triumph of the book was that I recognized myself and everyone I knew. And that, for me, was the ultimate test of a good journalist, even if he was only an English major.