Civil Rights Leader Who Desegregated U. of Georgia on Student-Led Movements of 1960s and Today

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As a student-led movement for gun control sweeps the country, we look back at a key moment in another historic student movement: desegregation. On January 9, 1961, African-American students Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes walked onto the campus of the University of Georgia to register for classes, as a howling mob of white students screamed racial epithets at them. It was a pivotal moment in the African-American student-led movement to desegregate America’s public high schools and universities. Charlayne Hunter graduated in 1963 and went on to have an award-winning career in journalism, working for PBS, NPR and CNN. For more, we speak with Charlayne Hunter-Gault, award-winning journalist and author of numerous books, including “In My Place,” a memoir of her childhood and her years at the University of Georgia. Her recent piece for The New Yorker is headlined “Surviving School Desegregation, and Finding Hope in #NeverAgain.”

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AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. From school desegregation to #NeverAgain. As a student-led movement for gun control sweeps the country, led by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students who survived the mass shooting that killed 17 of their classmates and teachers, we’re going to spend the rest of the hour looking back at a key moment in history, a key moment in another historic student movement: desegregation.

It was January 9, 1961, that two black students, Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes, walked onto the campus of the University of Georgia to register for classes, as a howling mob of white students screamed racial epithets at them. It was a pivotal movement in the African-American student-led movement to desegregate America’s public high schools and universities. On that day, Charlayne Hunter was just shy of 19 years old, one of the first two African-American students to enroll at the University of Georgia, after winning a landmark legal case. She had long dreamed of being a journalist. And at the time, the University of Georgia had the best journalism program in the state. Two days after she registered for classes, a white mob gathered outside her dorm room, hurling bricks at the building, smashing windows. The university suspended her and Hamilton Holmes, supposedly for their own safety. Again, the students took their battle to the courts, soon returned to campus.

Charlayne Hunter graduated in 1963, took her first job in journalism as an assistant—as an editorial assistant at The New Yorker. She went on to have an award-winning career in journalism, working for PBS, NPR, CNN, won two Emmys, two Peabody Awards. In 1988, the legendary journalist, now Charlayne Hunter-Gault, returned to the University of Georgia’s campus to make more history, becoming the university’s first African-American graduation speaker.

Well, Charlayne Hunter-Gault joins us now from Sarasota, Florida, the award-winning journalist, author of many books, including In My Place, a memoir of her childhood and her years at the University of Georgia.

It’s great to speak to you again, Charlayne. Talk about that moment. As we look at the student-led movement that is rocking this country—March 24th, the March for Our Lives, which Democracy Now! will be covering in Washington, D.C.—let’s go back to the movement that you began, on the University of Georgia campus. Walk us through it, as you walked on campus that day.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Amy, let me first say it’s nice to see you again. Last time I saw you was on Martha’s Vineyard, and it was a very wonderful experience.

And despite the things that went on back in 1961, it was a wonderful experience. I think it prepared me for my—what I call my journey to the horizons. Hamilton Holmes and I felt entitled, because our parents paid taxes. The University of Georgia was a state institution, and our parents’ taxes paid for it. It had been all-white for 170-some years. But we felt entitled. We were citizens of the state of Georgia. And at the same time that we were applying to the University of Georgia, a student movement, not only in Atlanta, but across the South, was aborning to challenge the unjust law of “separate and unequal,” although it was called “separate but equal.” And so, when we entered—when we won the case, with Vernon Jordan and Donald Hollowell and Constance Motley and Horace Ward—Vernon is the one remaining legal person who was involved with our case, the others are now our ancestors. But they were very much alive then and very determined to right what was wrong with the laws in Georgia, particularly as it related to the university.

We paid very little attention to the students who were yelling at us and calling us ugly words, because we had a mission. Our mission was to enroll at the University of Georgia and pursue our dreams. Hamilton wanted to be a doctor, which he eventually became, graduating from the University of Georgia, under all that pressure, as a Phi Beta Kappa. He wanted to play football, but initially—he played football at our high school in Atlanta, Turner High School, but the officials told him that if he played, he could either be hurt by his own football players or by the all-white players at all of the other schools, because University of Georgia was the first school to desegregate, so all of the other schools in the state were all-white still. And so, that was a big disappointment to him. But he concentrated then on his studies. And as I said, he graduated with the top honors in his class.

It might seem to outsiders to have been a trying time. And the night the students rioted outside of our dormitory, throwing a brick or two through my window, it was a little bit trying, because we—I was told. Hamilton didn’t know the riot was going on, because the girls had to live on the campus, boys didn’t. That was the Southern way of doing things in those days. But the one slightly fearsome thing was that we didn’t—I didn’t know what was going on outside. The police managed to take their time getting there to disperse the rioters. They did it with tear gas. And so, going into that dark night with officials that—whom I didn’t know whether I could trust or not was a little bit strange. But it wasn’t frightening, somehow. We got through it. I got through it, met Hamilton, who lived about, oh, five minutes away from the campus with a black family who were brave enough to take him in. And we were whisked to Atlanta in the cars of the State Patrol, Georgia State Patrol. And I think that was on a Wednesday night. And our lawyers went immediately to court the following morning and got us readmitted. But it was close to the weekend, so the lawyers and our parents and other adults involved with us decided to give us the weekend off so that we could return refreshed on Monday. And we did. And the rest, they say, is history.

AMY GOODMAN: You integrated the University of Georgia. And what was it like to go back decades later, and again you make history, as University of Georgia’s first black graduation speaker?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, it was a challenge. And I think I probably spoke a little too long, but I had a lot to say. And it was quite wonderful, actually. It was closing a page, formally, officially, on what had been, for many, an unpleasant history. It was a victorious history for us. And so, it was a great experience. And since that time, even before that, Hamilton and I had made our peace with the past and were very supportive of the university. In fact, we called ourselves Mama Dog and Papa Dog, after the Georgia Bulldogs, the football team.

AMY GOODMAN: And in this last minute we have on the national broadcast—but then we’re going to keep you, if you wouldn’t mind, to continue the conversation—talk about your activism then and what you see in the Parkland students today, these students who are survivors. And at the same time they are mourning the loss of their loved ones, their classmates, their teachers, they are leading a movement in this country, taking on these entrenched interests, one of the most powerful lobbyists, the NRA.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, you know, obviously, when I was at the University of Georgia a few days ago, I asked the journalism class I was speaking to to take a moment and say a prayer and wish the young people who were survivors that they don’t—that they don’t have to have all sadness in their lives the rest of their lives. Of course, they will never, I imagine, forget that moment. It’s something I can’t even imagine.

But as my friend Don Harris, a former businessman who was a part of the larger civil rights movement—the sit-ins, the voter registration and all of that—as he said, it’s their time. And there were young people back in the day, when we were there. There were older people who thought that we were on the wrong path. Some were afraid for us, not that they disagreed with our aims and ambitions, but they were afraid. And then there were others who just didn’t believe that we should be doing what we were doing. It goes way back to that debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, you know, whether you cast down your buckets where you are or whether you go ahead and challenge the system.

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And so, as I look at these young people, I think back on those days. And I think their time has come to pick up the baton and carry it forward, looking for justice and freedom and all the things that they are trying to stand for.

AMY GOODMAN: Charlayne Hunter-Gault, thank you so much. Part 2 online at democracynow.org.

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