A Look Back

Holmes-Hunter Lecture given on the occasion of UGA’s 40th Anniversary of Desegregation

by Charlayne Hunter-Gault, ABJ, UGA, '63

This is not my first trip back to the University, nor the first time I've stood at a podium here, although it obviously is the first time I've stood at a podium here to commemorate the 40th anniversary of and Hamilton's and my entry into this University. And thus, it's not like any other time I've spoken here. It is also not the first time I've spoken here and Hamp was not somewhere physically close by... not the first time I have felt his presence, as deeply as I felt it when we walked this campus together for the first time, a singular event that bound us together for all time, even the time that only he at this moment can know. (He always liked to think he was a step ahead of me!) ... His presence today is well represented here by Marilyn and the other members of his devoted family. And while today, as I stand here, marking the milestone passage of 40 years, I can still see in my mind's eye the events of January 1961 and the feelings I had about them then.

Was I thinking that the steps I took through the Arch would take me into history? I knew that this was an important moment-one that held out the promise of ending forever our lives as legal second class citizens (we, by the way, never thought of ourselves as second class citizens), and thus, as I wrote in In My Place: It was with a heady sense of history that we started out for Athens, my mother, Vernon Jordan and I were in one car, and Hamp and his father [and Horace Ward] in another." And I thought, not of what might lie ahead, but indeed of "how I was going to take my first steps onto the campus as if I knew my place, only this time, for the first time, it would be I who would be defining my place on MY terms, on territory that was their pride but was now mine, too."

I even remember the olive drab green jumper I was wearing, and the blouse with flowers that matched... my boots-hip, as we said in those days, above the ankle brown with knee high white socks. The media were calling me a pioneer, but I was also a 19-year-old girl and feeling like one: looking my best was important to me, part of the armour that deflected such things as being called "nigger."

And I had every confidence that nothing was going to stop us from achieving our goal -the most immediate one being to register for classes. Even when the State won a stay of the desegregation order, interrupting that first day of registration, we were undaunted, not least because of the cool confidence displayed by our legal team led by Constance Baker Motley, and Donald Hollowell, with Vernon Jordan and Horace Ward bringing up the all-important rear--- so convinced were we in the righteousness of our path. I remember rushing over to the home of Ray and Lulu Ware, a courageous black couple here in Athens, to wait until our lawyers had traveled to Atlanta to argue against the stay. After a little while, I fell asleep on the sofa. Knowing Hamp, he paced.

People like the Wares, as well as the adults around us were probably more conscious of the risks. After all, they had lived in the shadows of mean spirited white people for decades, not far removed from the bull whip and night riders and "the strange fruit hanging from Southern trees" that claimed so many of our people. They knew that those days were not over, even if the law said so. They had heard the popular rallying cry in the wake of the desegregation order, "You can't legislate morality." I thought it a curious phrase, to call the hatred they were practicing, the practices they were defending morality, but it was their code of conduct, no matter how reprehensible and it meant they were not going to surrender, "No not one" black student would ever attend classes at the University of Georgia or any other white school in the state. Which could even have meant that our very lives were in jeopardy.

But no one spoke of such, and it didn't enter my mind ... at least not then. Not even on the night of the riot outside my dorm did I permit myself to think that any harm would come to us. Not even when the brick came smashing through my dormitory window, sending glass flying everywhere. That was the night we were suspended allegedly for our own safety. When Hamp insisted on driving his new car his Grand Daddy had just bought him... I think it was the first and only time I was truly terrified, knowing that he would be driving alone -despite the state police escorts in front and behind him. Those small towns along the way were not welcoming places for black people in the best of times, and for many- of those whites who lived along the way, the prospect of blacks going to the University was for them the worst of times. So I threw the kind of temper tantrum that only a teenage girl with a more than minor flair for the dramatic could, which I knew would and did cause Hamp to relent and ride with me in the troopers car, I think as much to avoid further embarrassment over my antic as to keep himself out of harms way. And let me just quickly say here that one of the revelations that has come to me in the 40 years since ... is of the absolute moral authority. of my friend and classmate Hamilton Holmes. The kind we have seen in the likes of very few people in our time, with the possible exception of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela! You had to know them all to know that, and I knew them all and I know that with a certainty that I will not let be denied!

When Hamp and I returned to campus, under a new court order, we were as determined as ever to stay the course. Did we think of ourselves as pioneers? Maybe on one level, but on a more basic, fundamental level, as I wrote in "In My Place" " ...We were simply doing what we were born and raised to do." At the same time, we looked forward not only to our own days as students, but for many days of many more black students in this place in the years to come. As it is, on this day, I am drawn to the words of South African poet Mangone Wally Serote, from his poem, "Freedom Lament and Song... Here we go again

history is a life and it is a death
it reincarnates
in words
feelings and deeds
it walks the streets
it repeats itself at your doorstep and window and at your eye
i repeat again
i start from the beginning
this thing can't be meant to be so sad
when it is of life and for life
it is not just a sad tale and must not be

Thus, I have to say that for Hamp and me and for all those who labored so hard to help us gain admission to the University of Georgia, it was, despite the trouble, "not just a sad tale and must not be"...for those unpleasant things that happened 40 years ago were mere side bars to what was a triumph, and not ours alone, but all those people black and white who helped to open wide the doors to this Institution and subsequently to the State. It was indeed a triumph over the racism that had ruled the day.

In those heady last days of our years of teenage hubris, we could not have imagined how profoundly those experiences would impact our lives... Fortunately for us, we never once regretted the decision to come here - not even when Hamp would leave class and get to his car and find the air had been let out of his tires. Or when I would go for days on end without having a human exchange in a dormitory of 200 girls, many of whom used to take turns in the rooms above me pounding the floor until late into the night, But as I stand here 40 years hence, the word that comes to mind is fortunate...

Indeed how fortunate I am to be able to stand here in this place and be able to reflect on how this institution contributed so much to making me the person I think I am today. For even as the uglier moments are embedded in my consciousness like the reality of a snake bite or a gun shot wound or the viscous sound of a racial epithet, so too are the kindnesses - both large and small-of people - white people, especially, whose humanity triumphed over the bigotry around them. Those like Marcia Powell, and Joan Zitzelman and Walter Stovall -fellow journalism students who shared mutual interests and mutual distaste of the behavior of many of our classmates and the adults on and off the campus-even in the Statehouse – who egged them on. They ate with me, studied with me and stayed by my side, even when it meant that they then bore the brunt of racist taunts. That, to my mind, was the real definition of courage.

It was friends like those and people like Tom Johnson at the Red and Black ... He tried and was unsuccessful in getting me to work for the Red and Black-but I have to say he didn't give up ... even though it took almost another 40 years before he finally succeeded in getting me to work for him. And there were professors who took a stand to keep the University open against the forces that wanted to close it, and professors who took me into their classrooms and into their homes and made an extra effort to make me comfortable in both; and Bud Trillin, my first real journalistic role model and friend, who taught me that a journalist can be both sympathetic and objective it was Don Hollowell, my lawyer and surrogate father, and Carl Holman always only a phone call away – all of the above world who greet another Georgia graduate with "Go Dawgs" ...even as they talk about the need to do more to fulfill that mission. . Indeed, on that score, if anyone had given Hamp and me a crystal ball into which we could have looked to the future 40 years hence and seen only six percent students of color in a student body of 34,000, I think we might have sat down under the Arch and cried.

But ...

"It is not just a sad tale and must not be..."

Though I was determined at the age of 19 not to let the extraordinary, circumstances of my entry into this University be anything more than an ordinary step on the road to personal fulfillment (Otherwise, I think the load might have been a bit heavy - though I learned from Vernon , who learned from his mother and his "whole village"- that the Lord don't ever give you no more than you can carry.) Still-sometimes in the late hours of the night, when all Center Myers Hall was finally fast asleep- I think I heard the siren call of history.. Mind you, not the history that Hamp and I were making, necessarily-because as alone as we were on this campus of 20,000 white students, we were not alone in the Movement that claimed us.

In fact, I remember one night in the Fall of '61, I was summoned to the phone in the hallway and a voice on the other end identified himself as James H. Meredith, who had just desegregated the University of Mississippi - not without violence far more extreme that that which greeted Hamp and me. By this time, I was used to the more benign tricks of those who still didn't want us here, so I assumed this to be one. The voice on the other end of the line was disappointed at my disbelief and insisted that he was, indeed, James H. Meredith. I said, "Prove it." Whereupon I no longer heard a voice, but the sound of gunshots in the near distance. Then I heard the voice again. "Convinced now?" he asked.

But Meredith wasn't the only one having a baptism of fire. Young people all over the South were on the firing line in one venue or another-some sitting here today who lived to remember and tell the story. And that fire singed forever in our psyches and our soul the notion that we could not sit comfortably or stand by quietly while there remained even a millimeter of the bitter harvest of racial hatred, intolerance and denial of any person's human dignity and freedom.

Moreover, the siren call to history that I was hearing went far beyond the South that we were all fighting to change. And while there was no CNN to bring it live, as it was happening, somehow the word got back to my dormitory room in Center Myers from a far away continent called Africa that others who looked like us were also fighting for change ... for Independence from colonial rule, for basic freedom and human rights.

Forty years ago, I was too busy trying to pass zoology to do much other than note that and other struggles on the continent , as a whole ... In fact, if I recall correctly, I missed a trip to Africa that summer because I had to stay here on campus and make up a zoology course I had been less than successful in pursuing (fail was not a part of my vocabulary at the time) ... but despite the fact that I didn't make the trip, I noted the struggles.

I no longer have to struggle with passing zoology, but I am still as much, if not more of a student, struggling to understand that siren call of history. Struggling to understand why it is that even as the 20th century came to an end, the issue the prescient scholar W.E.B. DuBois called "the problem of the color line" has not been put to rest. In our pioneering exuberance, we thought the successful desegregation of the University of Georgia and our performance here would give the lie once and for all to the notion of black inferiority and thus racism. But old habits of mind, we came to learn, and the morality it produced lasted longer than reason would have led us to imagine. Racism and remedies to remove it for all time remains an abiding challenge-whether here in Athens, as those of you administering and attending this institution well know or Miami or Johannesburg ... home of the poet Serote, who, again reminds us...

"history is a life and it is a death
it reincarnates in words
feelings and deeds...
i repeat again
i start from the beginning...

Indeed, in one of life's more interesting twists over the past 40 years, fate has put me in a place where I start almost from the beginning... my own history, writ large ... South Africa - on a daily basis gives wings to memory and transports me sometimes as in a dream, sometimes a nightmare, back in time, though there is some reason to hope not back to the future. But it is still possible to feel and see and know anew the pain of people who have been through the hardest of times- the wounds of generations of subjugation and abuse... A tragedy in black and white, by white against black. It was called apartheid , but it looked just like Jim Crow.

The oppressed people of South Africa came late to their liberation-some 33 years later than those of us who had our victory here on these grounds.... but now, the children of apartheid-the last to take their place, are in their place, with an unparalleled opportunity to be the first to really solve the problem of race and its 21st century companion, culture.... Indeed, as much as South Africa is a country, it is a nation of 14 different languages and cultures, including a minority that is white thus it is also a laboratory where the Last Great Experiment in Ending Racism is underway and I am once again hearing the siren call of history as I observe with a professional detachment that is informed by a history, that is at least 40 years old. Mine is more than an academic understanding of this Great Experiment, it is visceral, fueling my passion to tell the story.

Thus my antennae are always finely tuned to the detection of something that I have known, as Langston Hughes knew the rivers ... Indeed, my antennae, as my soul has "grown deep like the rivers." Thus, I was attuned early and often to the worry of South Africans, particularly black ones, over the US Presidential election and its aftermath. For what it has done, among other things, is to put into stark relief South Africa's promise for dealing with racism-maybe ahead of the 200 year old democracy to the North, which has not solved what is perhaps its most bedeviling, and most fundamental test of that democracy-the problem of the color line.

And while many saw the of the delays and the legal wrangling as democracy at work, as one South African observer put it – To get it wrong once in 200 years isn't so bad – many black Africans saw it as did many black Americans-as justice denied to parts of the population that looked like them.

As Africans labor to build strong independent institutions to strengthen their own fragile democracies, they are asking unsettling questions about the independence of ours-most especially the Supreme Court, in the wake of its election decision. More often than not, it is easier to duck the issue, saying I wasn't there when it happened. That's the journalist talking. The Child of Brown is disquieted.

Likewise, not just in South Africa, but across the continent, Africans are also concerned about what an administration headed by George W. Bush will mean for Africa and for those democracies many of them still, as I said earlier, very fragile and in need of help from the outside world, lest they fall back into the anarchy and chaos that still bedevils far too many of the countries on the continent. Do not lose Africa again, as the United States did during the Cold War – their plea as this administration begins to chart its course for leading its nation and the world.

The incoming administration, aside, what the election that brought it into being has done is to put into even starker relief the ongoing debate in America about race – about when and how to include race as a factor in decisions ranging from college admissions to America's boardrooms, and that to many outside the country is even more embarrassing, coming as it is, from a country trying to convince the world's peoples of color – that democracy is the best way forward for them and their people, the best way to achieve the freedom and equality and prosperity that eluded them during their more than two decades of experiments with other forms of governance.

Moreover, it is both strange and disillusioning to Africans to hear blacks in America calling for an apology for slavery a century and a half after the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves. South Africans, too, are engaged in an intense debate over the call by a group of white South Africans for whites to apologize for apartheid the system of racial inequality created and sustained by the white South African government for 40 years-albeit at the tail end of a longer period of white oppression that even led to the destruction of some of its peoples of color. And while the campaign is another of those thorns that has pricked at the as yet thin layer of civility that has created the space for South Africans to take steps toward transforming their country into a more equitable society, what strikes me is how quickly this debate, like many others on race and equality, has moved to the forefront of public discourse. Not fast enough, perhaps, for a black South African child in a school without books in the library of his or her still all black and poor township-if there is a library, and often there is not, let alone computers in the classroom or lights at home to study by ... Maybe not even fast enough to assure the anxious whites minority fearful about a future that they believe may be at their expense...

But the new South Africa is barely seven years old and as painful as these debates sometimes are, simply by confronting the issue head-on, they hold out the promise of greater understanding of all points of view-the long suppressed aspirations as well as new fear-narrowing the racial divide a lot faster and a lot sooner than here, where conversations about race proceed in fits and starts, with long pauses in between; where remedies designed to redress the injustice of centuries -long discrimination are met with impatience if not hostility. While remembering Martin Luther King's birthday in a few days time, those who have problems with race-based remedies might revisit his words: A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the Negro.

The foundation of South Africa's promise is driven by a constitution drafted both blacks and whites that borrowed and benefited from the best in the world, including ours, resulting in one of the most progressive documents on behalf of non racialism and non sexism in the world. It is also driven by a black-led government that is unabashedly committed to black upliftment, making no apologies for affirmative action. Indeed, affirmative action is not a dirty word, but government policy, designed unequivocally to bring blacks into all of its institutions and commerce in proportion to their numbers in the population. That apartheid's separate and unequal education deprived many blacks of the tools to compete is one of the big challenges to that goal, but in the last two weeks, after consistently dismal results - especially in poor, black townships, the nation celebrated some of the highest pass rates ever-with students from the townships seen dancing in the dusty, playgrounds over their triumph.

As I wrote in an article published in Essence last year: "It is as if historic racial achievements in the United States had happened all at once, instead of stretching across almost a century and a half. Congress adding the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing citizens the right to vote, regardless of race, color or previous condition of servitude – 1870 ... the Supreme Court's handing down the Brown decision outlawing separate and unequal schools– 1954 and the federal government's passing sweeping civil rights legislation from 1963 to 1968."

Thus, while the outside world continues to look at Africa through a glass darkly, fed by images of its ongoing wars and the ravages of its diseases, not least being HIV/AIDS, it is just possible that there is some light that just might emerge to illuminate the world, especially on the matter of race, racial justice and racial harmony. A tall order, to be sure ... especially when there still exists egregious examples of the kind of racism that symbolized the old apartheid order, examples that make the hair of decent citizens stand on end.

still...

" it is not just a sad tale, and must not be..."

As is our commemoration today-not least being the occasion to express my! gratitude to all those who had something to do with the naming of the Holmes/Hunter Academic Building. Hamp would be especially pleased that it's the Academic Building that bears our name since scholarship was so important to him.

As for me, I was truly surprised. and as it sunk it, even a bit overwhelmed - not least because I started to think about what it really means to have NOT JUST ANY building but the Academic building bear your name. The first thought I had was of how embarrassing it would be to have any body flunk out in it. But then, my fears were allayed by the realization that there are no classes in it.

Then I quickly moved on to was what I would like to think will be the real significance of this building ... not so much the names it bears on the outside, but what goes on inside. It goes without saying that scholarship will be encouraged - A would hope scholarship of the kind that saw Hamp graduate Phi Beta Kappa, the kind of scholarship that in the ensuing years has seen this University become a magnet for the best and the brightest in this state and beyond. And while it doesn't get any better than that, I would hope that the kind of education that takes place in and around the building bearing our name will lead to scholarship that results in the kind of knowledge that will enable each and even, student, as well as each and every teacher to see things with what Malcolm X called "new eyes." Eyes that will be able to see the old world as it was-and for how it attempted to deny the aspirations of young black boys and girls like Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes. Eyes that will be able to see the -the New World for what it could be ... a welcoming place for the dreams of all young people, of all races, of all cultures. A place where it is possible for those dreams to fly on wings of unfettered ambition.

Let it be a place of Knowledge that embraces rather than recoils from change. Knowledge that enables both the teacher, the student to prepare for a 21st universe in which the challenge of culture will be every bit as daunting as the challenge of race ... because difference will be far more complex than black and white. Knowledge that no longer justifies racism by making culture exclusive, but knowledge that makes racism moot by edifying and celebrating culture and cultural diversity as a blessing and not a curse.

I would encourage those who walk through the doors of the building that bears our names to embark on a journey that will take them to the places that I have been in search of that which will make this building unlike any other that exists or has ever existed on this campus. Let the journey take them to the place not only of my ancestors, but indeed the place from which all humanity came. Let it also take as its affirming principle, as expressed in the Sotho language - "Motho ke motho ka batho"- a human being is a human being because of other human beings.

It as, as Serote points out in his book, "Hyenas" the point of reference for the customs and traditions of Aniandebele, Amaxhosa, Amaswati, Basotho, Bapedi, Batswana, Vhavenda, Amazulu and Matsonga ... find [ing] expression in one way or another among all these language groups as, at the same time, it informs the manner in which families, clans, tribes and communities relate to each other."

Let us borrow that transcending culture to inform every. course that UGA students sign up for in this building, whether it is African or African American History, calculus or chemistry.

Let the word go forth out of that building that what is taught and HOW it is taught in this great institution serve to make that building a model for the building that is our Global Universe, that what is taught and HOW it is taught be done in such a way that no one feels excluded ... even if at times they feel uncomfortable, for as poet Sarote also wrote... "the honesty of history is and can be cruel." But, as the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass allowed - without struggle, there can be no progress.

Let this University where this building sits that bears our name honor its historic mission by giving those who teach the time to unlearn and learn again, to learn about what Bel Hooks calls "different ways of knowing" and know how to use it to help others value rather than fear difference. Then let this new knowledge be internalized and utilized and practiced and emanate from this building into the classrooms of this place, such that the Holmes/Hunter Academic Building becomes a heralding beacon not only to this campus, but to this troubled, multi-racial, multi-cultural planet on which we live...

Let it give light and hope and heart to the leaders of what has become a Great University, the courage to make it greater by doing what is right and not what is politically expedient. Let it be the place that helps to end the reason for saying "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose." ("The more things change, the more they remain the same.") Indeed, give the leaders the courage to answer the siren call to history that made this day possible and will, again, if they choose to make bold and answer the call, to walk in the path of righteousness and never get weary to keep alive the spirit of 40 years ago, when Hamp and I walked under the Arch, as other students-black and white- walked the length and breadth of this state, emboldened by the moral certainty of our cause, singing the anthem of all our liberation- "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Roun' "

Can we sing it together, this morning, once again?