Four decades have passed since two honor students from Atlanta crossed—and shattered forever—the color barrier at UGA. In January, key figures in that drama returned to campus to commemorate and reflect on those times.
JANUARY 9, 1961
Surrounded by reporters and photographers, two prospective University of Georgia students make their way past the Arch and up the walk to the Academic Building. They are headed to the registrar's office to sign up for classes for the semester that is just getting under way. What is newsworthy—historic, in fact—about this moment is that the two are black, and in the 176 years since UGA was founded, they are the first to cross the color line that has reserved the state's flagship school for whites only.
Although it is nearly seven years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in public schools, the University has found various ways to block access for applicants of color. These two—Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter—are on campus only because an 18-month legal battle on their behalf has been successful. On the previous Friday, Jan. 6, federal judge William Bootle issued a 28-page ruling in the case of Holmes v. Danner (UGA registrar Walter Danner). Bootle found that Holmes and Hunter "are fully qualified for immediate admission" and, what's more, "would already have been admitted had it not been for their race and color."
It is a considerable legal victory, but the battle is not over. Still to be determined: official reaction from the state and what the campus climate will be in the wake of the decision. As word of Bootle's ruling spread, some student leaders called for calm. But by late Friday evening, a milling crowd on North Campus burned crosses and threw firecrackers in protest.
On Saturday, Jan. 7, Hamilton Holmes and his father, Alfred, had driven to Athens to pick up registration forms. With them was Atlanta civil rights attorney Donald Hollowell, who, with Constance Baker Motley of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, headed the Holmes-Hunter legal team. Meanwhile, Gov. Ernest Vandiver was meeting with his chief of staff Griffin Bell, attorney general A.G. Cook, and B.D. (Buck) Murphy, who years before served as special counsel to fight attempts by another black applicant, Horace Ward, to enroll in UGA's School of Law. Ironically, Ward—having since earned a law degree from Northwestern—is now a member of Donald Hollowell's firm.
After the governor's meeting in Atlanta, Cook was dispatched to district court in Macon to deliver a motion for a stay of Bootle's ruling. Bootle scheduled a Monday morning hearing, while UGA President O.C. Aderhold told the press that unless he received contrary instructions, the University was prepared to admit Holmes and Hunter.
On Sunday, Charlayne Hunter returned to Atlanta from Wayne State University in Detroit, where she had been a student while awaiting the outcome of the lawsuit. Not far away, Vandiver and his advisers held strategy sessions with legislators, regents, and other officials.
Now, on Monday, Holmes and Hunter arrive in Athens accompanied by his father, her mother, and two members of their legal team: Ward and a young law clerk, Vernon Jordan. Hollowell and Motley are in Macon for Judge Bootle's hearing. The registration process is under way when a cheer goes up from a crowd of students gathered outside the Administration Building. Bootle has stayed his own ruling, saying he wants to give the state the opportunity to appeal.
In Macon, Motley acts quickly, phoning Elbert Tuttle, chief judge of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. She and Hollowell race to his chambers on Forsyth Street. Tuttle rules that Bootle's stay has been "improvidently granted" and overturns it. Hollowell calls the home of Athens businessman Ray Ware, where Holmes and Hunter have gone, and tells Jordan to escort them back to campus to resume registration. That night, in Athens, a crowd of students—expecting the governor will close the University—stages more demonstrations.
In Atlanta, the governor's legal aides prepare for the last-ditch step. The next morning, Tuesday, Jan. 10, a delegation from Georgia enters the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington with a petition to stop the ordered desegregation of the University until there is a formal appeal. Attorney general Cook asks that it be delivered to Justice Hugo Black, the supervising judge of the Fifth Circuit. Unbeknownst to Cook, a motion from Hollowell and Motley has already arrived. Justice Black takes the matter to the full court, where the state's motion is denied.
In Macon, Hollowell and Motley ask Judge Bootle for a temporary injunction restraining the governor from cutting off funds to the University, which Bootle grants. That night, at a celebration at the Hollowells, Vernon Jordan leads a victory chant: "From Bootle to Tuttle to Black and back."
That isn't the end of it, of course. There is still the matter of the campus reception. Holmes and Hunter attend their first classes without incident on Wednesday, Jan. 11. But that night, after UGA suffers an overtime loss in a basketball game against Georgia Tech, a mob descends on Myers Hall, where Hunter had been assigned ground floor rooms. The crowd hurls bricks and bottles, shattering windows—including Hunter's—before being dispersed by Athens police using tear gas and aided by Dean of Men William Tate, who wades into the throng demanding student IDs.
Later that night, Hunter and Holmes (who lived off campus and had been unaware of what was occurring) are escorted back to Atlanta by state troopers. They are subsequently informed by Dean of Students J.A. Williams that he is withdrawing them from the University in the interest of their safety "and for the safety and welfare of more than 7,000 other students."
That ploy doesn't work. Amidst a hue and cry from faculty members and pressure from Atlanta business leaders and others who understand what the ultimate cost of continued resistance would be, Holmes and Hunter are able to return to campus and remain. They are later joined by Mary Frances Early, a classmate of theirs from Atlanta's Turner High School, who becomes the first African-American graduate student and the first to earn a UGA degree when she receives her master's in music education in 1962.
By the time Holmes and Hunter graduate in 1963, others have followed in their footsteps, among them Harold Black, the first African-American male student to live on campus. Holmes, who earns a Phi Beta Kappa key and a bachelor of science degree cum laude, goes on to integrate Emory's medical school. He becomes an orthopedic surgeon in Atlanta and is affiliated with Emory and Grady Memorial Hospital when he suffers a heart attack and dies in October 1995.
Hunter receives her degree in journalism and begins her career with The New York Times, then works for PBS and NPR, before assuming her current post as Johannesburg bureau chief for CNN. She has won numerous awards, including two Peabodys (administered by UGA's College of Journalism/Mass Communication) for her reporting on Africa.
JANUARY 9, 2001
It's 7 a.m. on Jan. 9, 2001, and Charlayne Hunter-Gault is already on the air, doing a CNN interview from studios at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education about the day ahead of her—the 40th anniversary of the date when she and Hamilton Holmes arrived on campus to register as the University of Georgia's first two African-American students.
The interviewer finds it interesting that 40 years ago UGA was fighting a legal battle to keep black students out and now the institution is in court defending the use of affirmative action in a portion of the admissions process. That irony has prompted an earlier article in the Washington Post, noting that today's state leaders—Gov. Roy Barnes among them—actively support the University's position. This in contrast to the stance by former Gov. Ernest Vandiver 40 years previously that "no, not one" black student would enter UGA.
Hunter-Gault has traveled 18 hours from Johannesburg, South Africa, her current base of operations for CNN, to return to the campus that she has termed "my place" for a number of years. With her are her husband, businessman Ronald Gault, and her daughter, Suesan Stovall, from her first marriage to fellow UGA student Walter Stovall.
On the way to Hodgson Hall at the Performing Arts Center, where a morning program is scheduled, Hunter-Gault is still marveling over an exchange the previous evening with Vandiver, who also has come to UGA to take part in the commemoration events. "He said he made some intemperate remarks back then and shouldn't have said them," she tells her fellow passengers.
One of the program organizers points out to Hunter-Gault that the idea to mark the 40th anniversary came from Vandiver's daughter, Jane Kidd, who works for the University on the staff at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia. "That's pretty amazing," she says.
40 YEARS AGO, UGA WAS FIGHTING A LEGAL BATTLE TO KEEP BLACK STUDENTS OUT. TODAY, UGA IS IS IN COURT DEFENDING AFFIRMATIVE ACTION.
It is to be an amazing day. Not only have Hunter-Gault and Vandiver returned to campus, but many of the other principles in the drama that played out before the state and the nation 40 years ago. There's Horace Ward and Constance Baker Motley from Hunter-Gault's legal team, now federal judges in Georgia and New York, respectively. There's Donald Hollowell, the Atlanta civil rights attorney whose firm not only represented Holmes and Hunter, but many others—even at one time working to get the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. released from the Reidsville state prison.
Along with Vandiver, there are the leaders of the Georgia Senate and House in 1961, Carl Sanders and George T. Smith. And there are several journalists who covered UGA's desegregation, including Calvin Trillin, then and now a writer for Time. Trillin, whose first book back in 1963 was An Education in Georgia about Holmes and Hunter's admission to and graduation from UGA, has traveled from New York with his wife, Alice.
And there are Holmes family members—including his wife, mother, brothers, children, grandchildren—all here to take part in the ceremonies and remember the remarkable man who died in 1995. Hamilton Holmes III, known as Trey and born just weeks after his noted grandfather passed away, plays with the newest member of the family, his 8-week-old sister. They are the children of Chip Holmes (BBA '90), who followed in his father's footsteps in attending UGA, where he met his wife, Gail.
Many of these people, with some notable exceptions, have been on campus a number of times in the last 40 years. Indeed, Hollowell and his wife and several members of the Holmes family return at least annually for the Holmes-Hunter Lecture, which was established during UGA's Bicentennial. Hunter-Gault has been back to campus several times—taking part in the Bicentennial in 1985, delivering the 1988 Commencement address, and returning again for the 1992 Holmes-Hunter Lecture, when she and her former classmate announced the creation of a Holmes-Hunter scholarship.
But they have never all been here at the same time and with the common purpose of observing a landmark event in the University's history.
An audience of nearly 1,000 has filled most of the seats in Hodgson Hall as the morning program begins. UGA faculty member Maurice Daniels, who has worked for years on a documentary about the desegregation of the University, takes the stage to tell some of that story and show slides from that time period. He is followed by Robert Pratt, another faculty member, who has written a history of the desegregation, due out from the University of Georgia Press this fall.
Pratt talks about the importance of "jogging our collective memories" and setting facts straight. In particular, he says his research confirms what many knew at the time—that the Jan. 11 riot outside Hunter-Gault's dormitory was hardly spontaneous and, in fact, had been planned by students in the law school. What's more, Pratt says, several state legislators were fully aware that it would take place.
Moments later, news footage from 1961 is shown. On the screen, students chant "two-four-six-eight, we don't want to integrate." A white male student, asked about the reception Holmes and Hunter will get, says he's "for anything that happens to them." Then former WSB news director Ray Moore, standing outside Center Myers as he did 40 years before, recounts on the video how he took a large rock in his "chest protector"— his heavy overcoat—on the night of the riot. Things might have gotten even worse, he says, had not Athens police arrived on the scene with fire hoses and tear gas to break up the crowd. Next, a tearful Charlayne Hunter is shown being escorted from the scene. In a subsequent interview, she explains, "I was crying because I was very disappointed and very hurt that I had been suspended."
NOT SINCE '61, HAD SO MANY PARTICIPANTS FROM THIS DRAMATIC AND IMPORTANT CHAPTER IN UGA'S HISTORY BEEN TOGETHER AND BACK ON CAMPUS.
Not for long, of course. The video continues with footage from 1963 with Holmes and Hunter smiling in caps and gowns at graduation, then jumps to the 1985 Bicentennial when a tearful Hamilton Holmes says, "I have come in the last three years or so to really love this University. I must admit that when I was over here, I didn't get much chance to love it."
"That video is a hard act to follow," says Hunter-Gault, taking the stage as the lights come up. But she has followed other hard acts, she says, and within moments has the audience's rapt attention as she speaks of her classmate and friend and of the "singular event that bound us together for all time."
Her speech ranges from the 1960s in Athens and throughout the South to the overturning of apartheid in South Africa just seven years ago, and then back to Athens, where the Academic Building has been renamed for her and Holmes. "I would hope that the kind of education that takes place in and around the building bearing our names will lead to scholarship that results in the kind of knowledge that will enable each and every 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 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."
The story of UGA's desegregation, she says emphatically, quoting a South African poet, "'is not just a sad tale and must not be'. . . for those unpleasant things that happened 40 years ago were mere sidebars 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 celebration of that triumph, Hunter-Gault ends her speech by leading a rousing chorus of the civil rights anthem, "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around." She is joined by the audience, on their feet, clapping and swaying.
There is more to the day. Ward, Hollowell and Motley take the stage with Vandiver, Sanders, and Smith, each in turn recounting something of their personal history and their memories of the events of 40 years ago. Vandiver recalls gathering 50 of his friends and advisers to the governor's mansion to discuss whether or not to close the University. Of that group, only Sanders said the school needed to stay open. Motley notes that she and Hollowell were immediately in court seeking an injunction to ensure that UGA would not close.
Ward recalls being told in no uncertain terms that he should not return to campus after escorting Holmes and Hunter to the Administration Building. For 35 years, he stayed away, only recently beginning his own reconciliation with UGA.
At lunch, Mary Frances Early tells of coming to UGA to provide "moral support" for her former classmates from Atlanta's Turner High. She recalls facing a group of male students who were blocking her path to the library and having pebbles thrown at her. The mild-mannered Early admits to picking up a rock and warning her tormentors, "I'm not all that non-violent."
In the afternoon, a panel of journalists who covered UGA's desegregation and other events of the civil rights movement, discuss dangers they faced. Former Associated Press reporter Kathryn Johnson remembers being knocked to the ground outside Center Myers, where a tear gas canister exploded right in front of her. Her cameraman, hiding in a tree, later chided her for being too green to know how to protect herself in a riot.
HUNTER-GAULT, QUOTING A SOUTH AFRICAN POET, SAID THE DESEGREGATION OF THE UNIVERSITY 'IS NOT JUST A SAD TALE AND MUST NOT BE.'
Tom Johnson—now head of CNN, then a reporter for The Red and Black—remembers writing about UGA's desegregation and then going home at night to the Sigma Nu fraternity house, "one of the headquarters of the opposition" to Holmes' and Hunter's arrival. "It was a sad moment here," he says, adding, "Segregationists tried to portray the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the out-of-state media as anti-UGA. . . . But the coverage was very fair and accurate. There was almost no sensationalism."
After the journalists' panel in the Chapel, President Michael F. Adams takes the stage, along with Gov. Barnes, Marilyn and Chip Holmes, and Hunter-Gault for a round of speeches (see p. 64 for Barnes' remarks). Then everyone adjourns to the Academic Building for the official unveiling of a plaque and sign confirming that it is now the Holmes/Hunter Academic Building. Hunter-Gault and Holmes' mother, Isabella, run their fingers over the engraved letters.
It's now 7 p.m. and Hunter-Gault has been going non-stop for 12 hours. Nevertheless, she allows herself to be persuaded to attend a student-organized "celebration of diversity" at the Tate Student Center. Daughter Suesan even agrees to come up to the podium and perform an a cappella rendition of "Amazing Grace." Members of Delta Sigma Theta, the sorority Hunter-Gault joined at Wayne State, present her with an engraved clock. She joins them in a circle, and as the group sings together, a beaming smile lights her face. It has been a very good day.