A Pioneer Looks Back, 50 Years After Making History

January 6, 2011

NPR Staff

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 they 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." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.