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CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien tells Mount Holyoke audience to seek untold stories

O’Brien, anchor of the network’s morning news program “Starting Point,” delivered a keynote address that launched MHC’s Black Alumnae Conference and was also part of the college’s 175th anniversary celebration. A Harvard University graduate, O’Brien is not a Mount Holyoke alumna.

Speaking to an audience of about 700 in Chapin Auditorium at Mary Woolley Hall, O’Brien shared stories of her 20 years in journalism, starting at WBZ-TV in Boston, where she spent hours “pulling staples out of walls and getting everyone coffee” to her present status.

Her sixth “Black in America” documentary will air on CNN on Dec. 9 and third “Latino in America” documentary is in production, she said.

“I hear it over and over again when I go to interview people for these documentaries. ‘Nobody ever wants to tell our story.’ Word for word, I hear it over and over,” she said. “These stories deserve to be told.”

O’Brien said her groundbreaking coverage of underrepresented groups can be traced to the example of her parents. Her mother, of Afro-Cuban heritage, and father, a Caucasian Australian, travelled from Baltimore in 1958 — where they both taught at Johns Hopkins University — to marry in Washington, D.C., because their marriage was illegal where they lived.

Even though her parents faced public taunts and even spitting from strangers due to their mixed-race union, O’Brien said they “moved through life with dignity.”

Nine years later, barriers to mixed-race marriage were removed nationwide. By then, her parents had six children, O’Brien said.

“My mother told me, ‘If you wait for people to give you permission to do things, you may be waiting a really long time,’ ” she said.

In 2004, when O’Brien was nearly nine months pregnant with her twin sons, a story she had developed and expected to cover overseas was assigned to a male colleague.

“So I did what any bloated, water-retaining, eight-and-a-half-months pregnant woman would do,” she said. “I pitched a hissy fit until they put me on a plane.”

A highlight of her career was the opportunity to visit the private library of Martin Luther King and read the first drafts of some of his most famous speeches. King, a minister in Montgomery, Ala., rose to national prominence at age 25 in 1955 through his role as leader of a bus boycott by African Americans.

“He was chosen because he was noncontroversial and everybody liked him,” O’Brien said. But over time, King learned that he would have to bring “uncomfortable” facts to the attention of white America and agitate for changes in order to improve life for the nation’s black citizens, she said.

“He was a man who was inspired by a moment,” she said. “A regular man who discovered that he could lead, so he did.”

In ending her speech, O’Brien quoted from poet Dante Alighieri’s “Inferno”: “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality” and told students that seizing a moment and doing the right thing, even when difficult, is always the right course.

“Slam your heads into a wall,” O’Brien said. “Then keep going.”

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