Hunter-Gault Looks Back, 50 Years After Breaking Color Barrier At GeorgiaA half-century ago, Charlayne Hunter was one of the first black students to enroll at the University of Georgia, the state's flagship college. The other was her friend, Hamilton Holmes. Both went on to great success, but that 1961 day, they "were greeted by a screaming, howling mob of students," she recalls.
Hamilton Earl "Hamp" Holmes and I take our first steps toward becoming students at the University of Georgia. At that moment, making history was less on our minds than making it to the registrar's office to sign up for classes.
I remember being more concerned with finding a pen in my very large purse than being worried about the ugly jeers outside our window. Oddly enough, neither of us believed we were in danger — despite the racist taunts of "Kill the niggers."
My first day of class at the Henry W. Grady School of Journalism, where I had no intention of letting anybody stand in the way of fulfilling my dream of becoming the next "Brenda Starr."
I had all the time in the world for AP reporter Kathryn Johnson, because she was the first person who called me in my dormitory at Wayne State University and broke the news that Judge Bootle had ordered Hamp and me into the University of Georgia. So if it was a scoop she was looking for, I was trying to oblige. (Johnson had sneaked onto campus dressed as a student.)
I will always remember the first brick that the mob outside threw through my window. My first thought was: 'My goodness, glass all over my still-unpacked suitcase full of clothes. (I was 19 and very much into my clothes.) And then I went on to think, "so this is what it's like in the eye of a hurricane."
So many people who saw this photo thought I was crying out of fear. I wasn't afraid. I was crying because I was frustrated that I couldn't think of how to persuade UGA not to suspend us. The same thing happened to Autherine Lucy at the University of Alabama. Autherine never made it back. I was determined not to meet the same fate. I just couldn't figure out what to do.
As an aspiring journalist, I learned a lot in the midst of chaos by watching and taking mental notes about the journalists watching me, as was the case in this shot.
Being the first black female student at the University of Georgia, I had unique opportunities like this one — with Labor Secretary Arthur Goldberg presenting two scholarships. Experiences like this helped me not be intimidated in the face of power later in life, during my career as a journalist.
This was the moment that made the long, often bumpy road we walked as the University of Georgia's first two black students worth it. And I was so proud of Hamp who, despite the stress, graduated Phi Beta Kappa.
My proudest moments were always standing beside my friend and classmate, Hamilton Earl Holmes. Unfortunately, while there were many, they were far too few. I continue to shed tears about his all-too-early departure from my life and those of his family, friends and colleagues.
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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.
In The News
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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."