A Pioneer Looks Back, 50 Years After Making History
Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 10:35 am
Fifty years ago, the University of Georgia accepted its first two black students -- Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter. Back then, the future journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault called him "Hamp." And she has vivid memories of the day they walked onto campus in 1961.
"We were greeted by a screaming, howling mob of students, and I think some provocateurs," she tells Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep. "And as we walked under the arch, the students were yelling and screaming all kinds of epithets, and telling us to go home -- in some cases saying, 'Kill the you-know-what.' "
The two students had been academic rivals at their Atlanta high school. And both went on to become high achievers — one a prominent orthopedic surgeon, the other a journalist whose career has ranged from The New Yorker to NPR.
A legal team had long been fighting to end segregation at Georgia, and it finally succeeded in representing Holmes and Hunter. That team included Vernon Jordan, who was then just six months out of law school and would later become a top adviser for Bill Clinton.
In an interview with Tell Me More host Michel Martin, Jordan and Hunter-Gault described how the landmark case developed -- and how they felt about taking on segregation in the South.
Hunter-Gault recalls that civil rights leaders in Atlanta "were looking for students who might be interested in attending the state schools."
For the ambitious Holmes and Hunter, their goal wasn't to attend Atlanta's Georgia State, as the legal team suggested -- but instead to go to the state's flagship school, first chartered in 1785. After all, UGA offered the best pre-med and journalism courses in the state.
But that idea caused some concern for the team in Atlanta.
"The adults almost fainted, because Athens was 73 miles away -- you had to drive through Klan territory," Hunter-Gault says. "There was nobody in the city that they knew who could protect us."
Jordan says that the main priority was to do whatever was in the students' best interests.
"Keep in mind, they were taking on the entire state of Georgia. They were taking on the governor, the regents, the legislature and the judiciary, and the university system," he says. "The university did everything conceivable and possible -- legal and illegal -- to keep them out. They were standing against the big wall. And they won."
On their first day at the school, Holmes and his father, and Hunter-Gault and her mother had no security escort as they walked on campus with Jordan. But despite the shouts from demonstrators, Hunter-Gault says, she remembers only one real cause for alarm.
"Vernon and I are both tall," she says, "and we were walking rather briskly, and my mother called out, 'Don't walk so fast, my legs are not as long as yours!'
"So, you know, we maintained our moments of sanity, I think, by just being who we were."
And neither Hunter-Gault nor Jordan say they felt any apprehension that day.
Instead, Jordan says, "There was just this sense of duty. And so, there were no thoughts about being afraid. This is what I went to law school to do -- and I'm now here, doing it."
Her early days in the spotlight helped to shape Hunter-Gault's career in journalism -- she learned a lot, she says, by studying how writers like Calvin Trillin, who was then working for Time magazine, reported a seminal part of the nation's history.
"I was able to be an observer, as well as a participant -- and fortunately, [I was] of an age where I could learn and benefit, looking at the good and the bad."
When asked how she would like people in 2011 -- especially today's college students -- to view the civil rights era, Hunter-Gault says, "I think that the thing that we learned back in the day of the civil rights movement is that you do have to keep on keeping on."
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Fifty years ago, the first two black students walked onto the campus of the University of Georgia. One of them was Hamilton Holmes - or Hamp, to his friends. The other was Charlayne Hunter. They were both high achievers, first and third in their class at the same Atlanta high school. But they didn't reach their chosen university until a federal judge cleared away the resistance of the authorities in Georgia.
Afterward, both students went on to successful careers. Holmes became a doctor, and Hunter is now Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who has reported over the years for NPR News. She remembers the day they walked onto campus in January 1961.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: We were greeted by a screaming, howling mob of students, and I think some provocateurs. And as we walked under the arch, the students were yelling and screaming all kinds of epithets and telling us to go home, and in some cases saying kill the you-know-what.
And we were led by - accompanied by Vernon Jordan, who was on the legal team that had won the case, and my mother, who was about five-feet, four-inches tall, Hamp's father and Hamp. And we had no security or anything, and we just walked into this crowd so confident that we were doing the right thing, that I just don't think we ever for a moment thought about being afraid.
And at one point, we had to leave one building and go to another. And Vernon and I, both tall, and we were walking rather briskly. And my mother called out: Don't walk so fast. My legs are not as long as yours.
(Soundbite of laughter)
HUNTER-GAULT: So, you know, we had - we maintained our moments of sanity, I think, by being just who we were.
INSKEEP: Didn't you have to do this twice, though? You went for a day. Then it was advised that you stay away for a while, for your own safety. And then...
HUNTER-GAULT: Well, it was advised because there was a riot outside my dormitory the second night I was on campus. I lived in a dorm room that was isolated from the other students. The girls lived on the second floor. I lived on the first.
So that second night, as I was preparing to go to bed - I hadn't yet unpacked my clothes. They were in a suitcase on the floor. And I was used to the noise from the previous night, you know: Two, four, six, eight, we don't want to integrate.
And all of a sudden, in the middle of one of these chants, a brick was hurled through the window. And, you know, in those days, I might have been a historical symbol, but I was also a 19-year-old girl and I loved clothes. And the thing I thought about as that brick came through my window was, oh, my goodness. There's glass all over my clothes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
INSKEEP: Oh, man.
HUNTER-GAULT: And shortly after that, the dean came said we were being suspended for our own safety. I was upset that I thought that this could be the end, but I was careful not to say anything.
And as I walked out of the dorm, the girls had come down from the second floor. They were all assembled down there because tear gas had been thrown to disperse the crowds - somewhat belatedly. And so they had been told to change their sheets, in case some of the gas got in the sheets.
And just as I walked past the semicircle of girls there, one through out a quarter and said: Here, Charlayne. Go upstairs and change my sheets. That was sort of indicative of most of the attitudes there at the time.
And then our lawyers went back to the courts the very next day, and we were readmitted and came back the following Monday, just to give us time to catch our breaths.
INSKEEP: Did it ever feel normal?
HUNTER-GAULT: Well, I guess there were times when it felt pretty normal. Yeah, there were students in the journalism school who became friends. And then there was a teacher, who just passed recently. Her name was Frances Wallace. And she had seen from her window, up high in the building where she lived, the rioting students. And when things calmed down, she invited me over for tea.
And we didn't talk about race and racism and hatred and stuff like that. We talked about Dostoyevsky. We talked about Yevtushenko. You know, all the writers: JD Salinger and Robert Frost, all the people that I was enamored with as a student of English. And those were precious days. And the tea was pretty good, too.
INSKEEP: How do you think your life might be different if you had gone somewhere else to college?
HUNTER-GAULT: Well, you know, my lifelong dream had been to be a journalist. But I think my path was different in one way because of the notoriety of the case. I was invited to come to New York by that legendary editor, William Shawn...
INSKEEP: He was the editor of the New Yorker magazine for many years.
HUNTER-GAULT: Yeah. Yeah. And so I was hired as an editorial assistant. So within a short period of time, I'd started to write, and the pieces were good enough to be published in the magazine. So I got off to a very good start.
But I think that there are some values that were reinforced for me as a person, as a human being going through that. You know, it was almost like a double existence. On the one hand, I was the subject of the news, people covering me. And on the other hand, I was watching them watching me.
And there were some extraordinary journalists covering the Southern civil rights movement, and my case in particular. One of them was Calvin Trillin.
And one of the things I learned about journalism and journalists is that you don't have to be an advocate for something you care about. But you can care about something and do it in a totally acceptable, journalistic way, without violating any kind principles.
And you could be a human being with your subjects. I mean, Calvin Trillin would call me some nights when the students were still yelling outside my dormitory and say - he was from New York. He'd say: How'd you like a pastrami sandwich right about now?
Well, now, look. If anybody was going to get scoop, if anything was scoop-able, he was going to get it. You know?
(Soundbite of laughter)
HUNTER-GAULT: So I learned that you can develop your sources and be nice to people. So I was able to be an observer, as well as a participant, and fortunately, of an age where I could learn and benefit, looking at the good and the bad.
INSKEEP: In 1961, Charlayne Hunter was one of two black students who integrated the University of Georgia. Today, Charlayne Hunter-Gault is a distinguished journalist, joining us from Chicago.
Thanks very much.
HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you, Steve.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.