BY May 17, 1954, when the United States Supreme Court declared racial segregation in public education unconstitutional, most Southern states had already desegregated their state universities, some voluntarily and some under a prophetic series of Supreme Court rulings on the practical inequality of “separate but equal” education. After the 1954 decision, some of the states had to pretend that the Negroes attending their universities with whites did not exist; otherwise, a good deal of the oratory of the late fifties would have been impossible. In 1957, for instance, when Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas decided that the enrollment of a dozen Negro students in Central High School in Little Rock would, as surely as election follows the Democratic nomination, result in a breakdown of public order, the University of Arkansas had been integrated for nine years. Jimmie Davis promised the voters of Louisiana in 1959 that he would go to jail before allowing a Negro to attend classes with whites, and was elected governor on that platform, in a state whose university had been integrated for eight years. A year later when the Louisiana legislature passed a whole string of bizarre bills designed to prevent even the token integration of the New Orleans public schools, four hundred and twenty-five Negroes were attending the New Orleans branch of Louisiana State University.
In the states of the Deep South where no Negroes attended white universities before 1954, the first assault on segregation also came in higher education, but it came after the battle lines were drawn. As a result, it was considered as much of a threat to the system as if it had come in the grade schools or high schools. The Negro students involved had none of the anonymity of those who had integrated the universities of Arkansas, Louisiana, Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee; nor were they blurred by inclusion in a group, like the teen-agers in Little Rock or the four first-graders in New Orleans. One after another they became famous, but usually only for two or three weeks. Their names, in most cases, faded so quickly from the news that many people find it hard to keep them straight: Autherine Lucy at the University of Alabama, Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes at the University of Georgia, James H. Meredith at the University of Mississippi, Harvey Gantt at Clemson College in South Carolina. Student Heroes of a strange new kind, they were famed for no achievements in athletics or scholarship but merely for showing up to attend classes.
Their presence was the test of segregation, whether the test resulted in successful defiance, as in Alabama, where Autherine Lucy was expelled after three days for accusing the university administration of complicity in the riots that accompanied her arrival, or in peaceful compliance, as in South Carolina, where those who control the state decided in advance that upon Harvey Gantt’s admission to Clemson order would be self-consciously maintained. Nowhere was the test more decisive than in Georgia, where Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes, two Negroes from Atlanta, entered the state university, in Athens, in January 1961. During their first week at the university—which began in relative calm, was climaxed by their both being suspended “for their own safety” after a riot, and ended with both returning to the campus under a new court order—Georgia abandoned its policy of all-out resistance and accepted desegregated education.
According to the lawyer for the plaintiffs, an Atlanta Negro named Donald Hollowell, the University of Georgia case was “the case that turned the state around and allowed them to start, or at least to see, what was in the other direction.” Few would disagree with Hollowell’s belief that the enrollment of Charlayne and Hamilton in the university was the turning point for Georgia, and was accomplished in a way and at a time that made it inevitable (a word formerly scorned and now almost popular in Georgia) that the state would move forward rather than backward. The walk out of the Deep South mentality was later accelerated a good deal by a federal court ruling against the County Unit System, which formerly made Georgia the only state to elect not only its legislature but its governors, senators, and congressmen by a voting system designed to favor the rural voter, and when Charlayne and Hamilton graduated from the university in June 1963 the atmosphere in Georgia was far different from what it had been when they showed up in Athens on a cold Monday morning two and a half years before.
Both Charlayne and Hamilton had entered the university of Georgia after completing the first half of their sophomore year elsewhere—Hamilton had gone to Morehouse, a private Negro men’s college in Atlanta, and Charlayne to Wayne University in Detroit during the year and a half it took them to get into Georgia after first applying for admission—and when they graduated they became the first of the Student Heroes to have completed their education, or at least their undergraduate education. As a reporter then based in Atlanta, I had covered both the week-long trial that resulted in their admission and the events that followed their arrival on campus in 1961, and in the spring of 1963, about ten weeks before Charlayne and Hamilton graduated, I returned to Georgia from New York, where I had been living, to see how integration had worked out at the University of Georgia—whether or not the Student Heroes had ever become simply students, and how two bright young people happened to become Student Heroes in the first place.
Both had always been considered perfectly cast for the role. Good-looking and well dressed, they seemed to be light-complexioned Negro versions of ideal college students, models for an autumn Coca-Cola ad in a Negro magazine. Charlayne, a slim, attractive girl with striking hazel eyes, had finished third in her graduating class at Turner High School in Atlanta, had edited the school paper, and had been crowned Miss Turner. The valedictorian at Turner that year was Hamilton, who had been president of the senior class and, as a smaller than average but effective halfback, co-captain of the football team. Since Charlayne and Hamilton had been such unlikely targets for abuse from the start, and had eventually been joined at the university by several other Negro undergraduates, the situation, looked at from a distance, seemed rather heartening. None of the stories from Georgia about school integration had mentioned any violence done to the pioneers. They dealt instead with the peaceful integration of public schools in Atlanta and the admission of Negroes to Georgia Tech in September 1961 without even the pressure of a court case. The atmosphere was such that Emory University, a private school in Atlanta, had been able to desegregate its nursing school voluntarily and was planning the integration of its medical school, having already chosen Hamilton Holmes as its first Negro medical student. But I knew from occasional communications I had had from Charlayne and Hamilton since they entered the university that the general progress of the state of Georgia often did not seem closely related to the problems facing the first Negroes at the University of Georgia day after day. I was reminded of this again by Charlayne’s reply to a letter I wrote her announcing my plans to revisit the campus. “Well, this is Brotherhood Week in Athens,” she concluded, with characteristic irony, “and I’m going out to stand on the street corner and wait for an invitation to lunch.”