The only sound inside the University of Georgia Chapel was that of retired journalist Monica Kaufman Pearson’s voice as she broke into song at the beginning of the 34th annual Holmes-Hunter Lecture on Feb. 7.
Pearson began her speech by singing “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” a traditional Negro spiritual hymn sung predominantly during the era of slavery.
“Unfortunately,” Pearson said, “the roots of racism, blacks still face today.”
The Holmes-Hunter lecture is another installment in the university’s Signature Lecture Series and is hosted by the Office of the President. The lecture is named for the first two African-American students to attend UGA, Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Hamilton Holmes.
UGA partnered with Athens-Clarke County and metro Atlanta schools to invite middle and high school students from Cedar Shoals High School, Clarke Central High School, Coile Middle School and Kipp Atlanta Collegiate High School to be at the lecture.
Every year, the speech focuses on civil rights, race relations and education. This year, Pearson spoke about current racial issues in the U.S. and the importance of communicating with one another about race in the workplace, classroom and everyday life.
Importance of conversation
Pearson worked for 37 years as a news anchor with Atlanta-based broadcast news station, WSB-TV. She currently hosts a weekly radio show on KISS 104.1 FM and TV show on Georgia Public Broadcasting entitled “A Seat at the Table.”
A Kentucky native, she began her career in print journalism, working for a local newspaper and later a public relations firm. In her retirement, Pearson graduated Magna Cum Laude with a master’s degree from the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2014.
As a journalist, Pearson highlighted current events involving race relations, urging blacks and whites to “learn how to talk to each other.”
One example Pearson used was the recent political scandal involving Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and a yearbook photo from the 1980s, showing him in black face.
“We are penalizing him for a lack of knowledge back then when, at the time back then, there was no conversation about it,” Pearson said. “He has since learned differently and shown through legislation and the work that he’s done in the state of Virginia for diversity and equal rights that that’s not who he is now.”
Pearson questioned how “‘the roots of racism continue to grow like kudzu,” reflecting on the Charlottesville white nationalist rally the occured in 2017.
“Just 128 miles away from where those slaves first landed in Jamestown, Virginia,” she said.
When introducing Pearson, Morgan Guthrie, a senior human development major, frequently described her as ‘a boss.’
“Mrs. Pearson is such an inspiration,” Guthrie said. “She touched on some very necessary points having to do race relations, looking within ourselves and being vocal about things we know that aren't right.”
Changes for the future
Pearson said she thinks young people have issues discussing race relations. After emceeing an event for high school football players, she noticed the separation between groups of all-white and all-black students.
“Here was a perfect example of young people not knowing each other,” Pearson said. “Even though they’re a team on the field, they are separated personally, socially, mentally.”
To solve racial bias, Pearson said, reflection and self-examination are a good start.
“Asking the tough questions, facing your fears, calling out yourself and then doing something about it,” she said.
Guthrie noted that lectures like this one showcase the improvements that the university has made that directly impact students.
“Lectures like these are so necessary and important for students of all races to attend. It speaks to our history and how far we have come,” Guthrie said. “We want to honor those who came before us and pave the way for minorities. It's an amazing reminder of the progress the University of Georgia has made.”
Pearson hopes, in the future, individuals can learn to be aware of their biases and communicate with one another.
“The more we become honest with each other, we’re going to get past this racist mess,” she said. “You can’t just talk the talk, you gotta walk it, and it means changing the way you talk to people, thinking about how you describe people, think about the jokes you tell.”
The next event in the Signature Lecture series will be the Mason Public Leadership Lecture, hosted by Shepherd Center co-founder Alana Shepherd on Feb. 19 in the Chapel at 2 p.m.