MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.
Today marks a pivotal day in civil rights history. Fifty years ago, January 6th, 1951, U.S. District Court Judge William Bootle ruled that the University of Georgia had to admit two African-American students, Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes. It took two years of legal wrangling, but the judge found that but for their race and color, the two met every qualification. And the university was required to admit them.
Three days later, on January 9th, the students walked into the admissions office of the University of Georgia, accompanied by Vernon Jordan, a member of the legal team that had fought to win admission for them. The move led to the desegregation of other academic institutions throughout Georgia and the Deep South. To talk more about this, we are pleased to have with us a name and voice you have heard many times on NPR and on this program, Charlayne Hunter-Gault. She's an NPR correspondent based in South Africa.
Also with us, attorney Vernon Jordan, a name and voice familiar from his decades of work as a civil rights leader, attorney in private practice and adviser to presidents.
Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: It's a pleasure.
Mr. VERNON JORDAN (Attorney): Thank you.
MARTIN: Charlayne, could I start with you? Did you really want to go to the University of Georgia to begin with?
HUNTER-GAULT: It hadn't been something I had been thinking about throughout my high school career, but when some of the more progressive citizens of Atlanta came to my school saying that they were looking for students who might be interested in attending in one of the state schools, and they wanted students with good grades but who also would get something out of it themselves, we became interested. Because there were no black schools in the state of Georgia offering journalism, and I wanted to study journalism.
And Ham wanted to study medicine. And while he could've gotten a good education at Morehouse, the facilities at the state universities were far superior, because it was still a separate, but unequal system where the whites' schools got all the best things. So we said, sure.
They had in mind a college right there in Atlanta, Georgia State. And when we went - were taken down there and looked at the curriculum - remember, you know, separate might've been unequal, but we had a fabulous education and we had been taught to aspire to the best. So when we looked at the curriculum, we two high school students said, uh-uh. This is not what we're interested in. Because it was like - almost like a business school, you know, like a junior college. And, of course, it's changed a lot today. But it wasn't what we wanted.
And so, all of a sudden, Hamilton said, no, I'm interested in - and he pointed north. And the adults almost fainted because Athens was 73 miles away. You had to drive through Klan territory. There was nobody in the city that they knew who could protect us. But I don't think that the adults were going to say no to that aspiration, given our enthusiasm, because Hamilton and I had been kind of rivals in high - friendly rivals in high school. So I wasn't about to let him get ahead of me. So when he said, I want to go over there, I just chimed in and said, me, too. It was just that simple. And that's where it all started.
MARTIN: I do want to hear more about what you were told to expect, because you do talk about this in your memoir, that there was an extensive process of preparation that went into your being there. So I want to hear more about that in a minute. But Vernon Jordan, may I ask you: What did it take to win this case?
Mr. JORDAN: Well, what it took was the extraordinary legal ability and understanding of the law of Constance Baker Motley, Donald L. Hollowell, Horace T. Ward, and I guess I helped a little bit. We had the backing of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund throughout the trial preparation, and during the trial we had the benefit of Thurgood Marshall's counsel. We had the benefit of Jack Greenberg's counsel. And we had the benefit of all of the experience of civil rights lawyers across the country. So, we were prepared.
MARTIN: Do you remember when you heard that you had won and that Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Hamilton Holmes - well, she was Charlayne Hunter then - and Hamilton Holmes would be allowed to enroll? Do you remember where you were and what you were doing?
Mr. JORDAN: I'm sure I was in the office when we got the word that Judge Bootle had ruled in our favor. There was not so much celebration, but consideration of what to do next and what was in the best interest of these two young, courageous people. 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. The university did everything conceivable and possible, legal and illegal, to keep them out. They were standing against the big wall and they won.
MARTIN: Charlayne, could you tell me about your first day on campus? And also, I think worth mentioning, and Vernon, I wouldn't mind hearing from you too on this, that you actually escorted the two to the admissions office.
So Charlayne, would you tell us, what was that first day like?
Ms. HUNTER-GAULT: I'm happy to tell you that. But could I just quickly take an aside?
MARTIN: Yeah. Sure.
Ms. HUNTER-GAULT: Because Vernon said while in the office. But Vernon actually discovered the piece of evidence that cracked open the case because the University of Georgia had said that they couldn't go against the Brown decision, that would have been even illegal. So they used subterfuge and they said that there was no room in the dormitory. Well, Vernon went to Athens and combed through thousands and thousands of applications until he found the one application that was identical to mine in the time that it was submitted and in the particulars because freshmen girls had to stay on campus and it was the case of Bebe Dobbs Grumby of the Marietta Grumbys. I'll never forget that. And when they found that application that was identical to mine, they knew they had cracked the case. And that was the young $35 a week lawyer then by the name of Vernon Jordan.
And it was Vernon who walked us through the arch, that is the entrance to the campus, along with my mother, and Hamilton and his father were not far behind. And we walked through a screaming mob of students.
Now some of the mob was angry, sentiments being spoken, and some of them were just out there being curious. We hadn't planned it but we just put one step in front of the other and walked through the crowds not looking to the right or the left, but I don't think we ever felt - I don't know about you, Vernon, but I never felt a sense of real apprehension. Did you?
Mr. JORDAN: I never felt apprehension. I just felt like this was why I went to Howard University Law School. This is why I studied at the West Point of the civil rights movement.
MARTIN: You talked about how young Charlayne and Hamilton Holmes were, but you were pretty young too, if you don't mind my pointing that out. You were just a...
Mr. JORDAN: Well, I - I was...
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: You were just a little bit out of law school. So I...
Mr. JORDAN: ...six months. I was six months out of law school.
MARTIN: Six months out of law school. So I do have to ask...
Mr. JORDAN: It's a great way to start your career.
MARTIN: Well, were you scared? Come on. Tell me. Were you scared?
Mr. JORDAN: 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.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the 50th anniversary of the University of Georgia's desegregation.
Our guests are Charlayne Hunter-Gault. She was the first African-American woman to register for classes at the University of Georgia. Hamilton Holmes was the first man. And Vernon Jordan, he's part of the legal team who was involved in winning the case that let students of color enroll at the university.
Charlayne, as I recall it, you're - the first day, there are a lot of students out there chanting, there are a lot of reporters out there too, students chanting two, four, six, eight, we don't want to integrate. But that was day one. Day two pretty uneventful. Day three was a different story. Can you tell us about that?
Ms. HUNTER-GAULT: Yeah, actually, I think it was the second day. I could be wrong. It's been a long time ago. But I thought it was my second...
MARTIN: Well, I read your book, so...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. HUNTER-GAULT: Yes. That was accurate. My memory now may not be.
Ms. HUNTER-GAULT: But I thought it was the second night on campus because the first night they'd been cheering and jeering outside my window. But the second night, I was sort of settling in, although I hadn't unpacked my bags for some reason. And I was in the room that was on the far side of the first floor lobby and the only other room on that side was the house mother. All the other students were on the second floor.
And so I was hearing all this jeering and stuff and I was getting prepared to go to bed. And all of the sudden as I walked towards my bed, my suitcase was at the foot of the bed, I heard a crash, and I looked and my suitcase was filled with glass. And then I saw this brick that someone had hurled through the window. And it was kind of, for me, like being in the eye of a hurricane. I thought oh, so this is what it's like to be in the middle of a riot. But before I could think beyond that, the dean of students came and said he was going to have to suspend us for our own safety.
And just instinctively, while I was feeling that we were defeated, because I didn't know what the next step was, I was very unhappy but I didn't say anything. I just said do we have to go? And they said yes, you have to go. And we got back to Atlanta and the lawyers went right back to court. Got us right back admitted. And as they say, the rest is history.
MARTIN: Vernon, Charlayne said the rest is history. What about you? After that pivotal, you know, moment in your career what were the next few things that you did?
Mr. JORDAN: Well, I went to work as the Georgia field secretary of the NAACP and from there to the Southern Regional Council, where I headed the Board of Education Project, from there to the United Negro College Fund, from there to succeed Whitney Young at the National Urban League. And in 1981, after 10 years, I retired from the Urban League and became a partner in the law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. And now I practice law one day a week and I'm an investment banker four days a week.
MARTIN: I wanted to ask you though, about what you think - and I obviously want to ask each of you. So Charlayne, I'll start with you. Let's fast-forward to January 11th, 1963, when you got your degree. Tell us what that day was like? What was that like?
Ms. HUNTER-GAULT: All of black Atlanta had come to the graduation. You know, it was like we were the children of everybody in Atlanta who could get a car that day and drive down. It was such a proud moment.
MARTIN: I wanted to ask each of you how you would like this moment to be remembered now. I know Charlayne, you are going to be back on campus commemorating the events at the University of Georgia. I know you're giving a talk, among other events. But I would like to ask each of you how you would like this moment in time to be remembered.
It is worth mentioning, Hamilton Holmes, who is no longer with us, went on to have a distinguished career as a doctor.
You, of course, Charlayne, went on to have a distinguished career as an award-winning journalist, working for The New York Times, CNN, PBS, as well as, of course, NPR, where you've been a correspondent based in South Africa and written many books.
And Vernon Jordan, of course, you, as we mentioned, went on to have a distinguished career both as a civil rights lawyer and as a lawyer in private practice, as a political advisor and now you're in investment banking.
I'd like to ask each of you how would you like people now, particularly students now, to think about that time?
Mr. JORDAN: I think, first of all, you have to remember what the state of Georgia was in 1961. For black people, it was a mean place and racism abounded. And the real story to be remembered is the courage and determination of these two young people to prove to the Georgians and to the world that there was something called the 14th Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause therein, and they pursued it and they won it, not just for themselves but for all of the other young black people and white people who came to know each other and be friends, to play football together, to debate together, to enjoy the academic experience together.
And so I think you have to remember what it was. But then I think you have to remember what it took on the part of these two young people to survive it, and survive it winningly.
MARTIN: Charlayne, what about you?
Ms. HUNTER-GAULT: Well, it's hard to follow that. But 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. And the thing about democracy, it may be the best form of government in the world but it's fragile always and you have to be vigilant. And we have an environment now that is almost toxic when it comes to race and intolerance.
And while people like Vernon - and I pay tribute to him in my talk, because all the things he said he did following the desegregation, the values that he took with him not only into the arena of civil rights and racial justice, but he took those values into corporate America as he mentored other young people so that they would know that it's not just about making the money. It's about making a difference.
And so I am going to recall, next Monday when I make my talk, a conversation I had with a guy at a wedding I attended recently who is from out of this country, who is not an American. And he said to me, why is it so important to keep digging up the past? And the torrent that I unleashed - I know he was sorry that he asked. But it's important because we have to keep our eye on the prize.
And when values are threatened, when the progress that we've made are threatened by people on the airwaves who are feeding information to people that is just totally wrong, it just tells us that we have to stay forever vigilant. Because we have citizens in this country now who are wearing farmers overalls and Muslim garb. We have citizens who are new to the nation and we don't want them to have to go through the same kinds of challenges that we had because of ignorance and intolerance.
So my challenge to the students is that every day of their lives they have to enjoy themselves as I did - even under those circumstances, I had wonderful friends and a wonderful experience, but I had to keep my eye on the prize. And I want them to keep their eye on the prize, which is to have a country that is tolerant and that is welcoming to all of its people, black or white, gay or straight, different in whatever way they are. If they are living and breathing in the same way that I am then they are all God's children and they need to be respected.
MARTIN: Charlayne Hunter-Gault is the first African-American woman to register for classes at the University of Georgia. Hamilton Holmes was the first man. She is now an award-winning journalist, working for NPR as a correspondent based in South Africa. She's also worked for The New York Times, CNN, and PBS as well. She's also the author of a number of books, including her memoir about her time at the University of Georgia called "In My Place." She joined us from Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta.
Vernon Jordan is a lawyer who helped win the case of open admissions for students of color to the University of Georgia. He's also served as field director for the NAACP, executive director of the National Urban League. He's been a lawyer in private practice. He is also the author of a number of books, including his memoir, "Vernon Can Read." And he was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.
I thank you both so much for speaking with us.
Mr. JORDAN: Thank you.
Ms. HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you for having us, Michel, and happy New Year.
(Soundbite of music)
MARTIN: And that's our program for today.
Remember, to tell us more, you can always go to npr.org and find us under the Programs tab. You can also follow us on Twitter; just look for TELL ME MORE/NPR. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow.