University of Georgia reflects on its desegregation legacy

In the winter darkness of January 1961, moments after her lawyer and mother had left her alone in her dorm room, Charlayne Hunter could hear a crowd of fellow University of Georgia students chanting outside her window:

"Two, four, six, eight, we don't want to integrate..."

Complete with racial slurs, it was an unmistakable message from students enraged by a federal court order that had permitted Ms. Hunter and Hamilton Holmes to be the first African-Americans to enroll at the university in Athens, Ga.

But taunts were the lesser problem. The next night a brick came crashing through Hunter's dorm window, while police used tear gas to break up the ensuing melee. Hunter and Holmes were suspended by school officials "for their own safety."

Four decades after passing through the university's gates to crack the race barrier, Ms. Hunter-Gault is an award-winning journalist. Today, she will give a keynote address there to help celebrate the first desegregation of a public university in the deep South. (Holmes died in 1995 after becoming a well-known doctor in Atlanta.)

The UGA campus now is a vastly different place, even if race issues still flare occasionally, students and faculty say.

But marking a historic moment for desegregation takes on added relevance because of the spate of current cases challenging affirmative-action, which has been commonplace nationwide for decades.

Cases at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Washington in Seattle - as well as UGA itself - have reached the appeals stage and could be reviewed by the US Supreme Court. In each case, white applicants claimed reverse discrimination because of race-based factors in admissions.

Living down a reputation

Mark Anthony Thomas, who last year became the first black editor of UGA's student newspaper, thinks affirmative-action policies are still needed. Despite much progress, he and others say, the balance on campus still needs to be adjusted.

Approximately 6 percent of UGA students are black, in a state with a one-third minority population, he notes. Only about 40 percent of blacks who are accepted at UGA enroll, possibly because of perceptions that the campus would be hostile to them, Mr. Thomas says. But in his view, "The administration makes a conscious effort to make sure minorities feel welcome."

Thomas cites a remarkable degree of genuine enthusiasm on campus for the celebration of the 40th anniversary of desegregation. A volunteer student group he organized to publicize the event is about evenly split between blacks and whites - and a number of mostly white student groups are involved.

The strains that still remain, he and others say, have mostly to do with echoes of the past. One is the segregated Greek system. Last fall, a white UGA sorority made news by denying admission to a black applicant.

"The few problems we have are of the students' own making," Thomas says. "It's going to take years to dilute that reputation that we've had."

Robert Pratt, a UGA history professor, expects to publish a scholarly history of desegregation at the university this year. He agrees vestiges of bias remain. He can recall being mistaken for a janitor by students on a couple of occasions.

Yet cordial, even warm, relations with colleagues and students are the norm, he says. And UGA was a leader in Southern higher-education desegregation, he adds.

Yes, there were riots and protests, but, as he points out, it was nothing like the violence in 1962 at Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi, when two federal marshals were killed during days of rioting.

"What's important to remember is that prior to UGA in 1961, there had been very little desegregation in Southern higher education," Mr. Pratt says. "UGA's transformation suggested that desegregation could take place relatively peacefully."

The governor's shift

After the court order opened the campus to Hunter and Holmes, state politicians were torn. Many of them wanted to close the university.

Ernest Vandiver, Georgia's governor when Hunter walked onto campus, had been elected on a "Not one. No, not one" campaign promise to close the state's schools and universities rather than integrate them. He, too, will appear on a UGA panel today.

"I did have a strong position back then," Mr. Vandiver says in a phone interview. "You couldn't have got within 50 miles of the state Capitol without a strong position on segregation."

But when the crunch came, he in effect committed "political suicide," he says, by helping persuade fellow legislators to keep UGA open and to eliminate the law banning funding for any state educational institution that admitted blacks. Vandiver chose not to run for office the next year. He lost a later race for the US Senate.

Carl Sanders recalls being one of only two legislators who had originally argued against closing the university. He went on to become governor in 1963.

When Vandiver shifted his stance, Mr. Sanders and others say, it helped set a standard of relative nonviolence that has benefited Georgia over the long run.

That same year, after the UGA decision, colleges and K-12 schools statewide were opened to blacks.

"I sympathize with anyone who has to meet with that problem [of racism on campus], because it's a tough one, and it's one that still exists today, though not as much," Vandiver says. "I think it took a lot of courage for Ms. Hunter and Mr. Holmes to come to the university."

'A seminal moment'

Once she was allowed to go back to class, Hunter toughed out the taunts, graduated, and married. An award-winning journalist, she is currently a CNN correspondent in Johannesburg, South Africa.

"At 19, I used to protest that [breaking the race barrier at UGA] wasn't going to be the most important moment in my life," Hunter-Gault says in a phone interview from Johannesburg. "Except it was indeed a seminal moment for me, and probably powers greater than I made sure those events were seared into my psyche and my soul."

E-mail claytonm@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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