THE University of Georgia was desegregated with unusual suddenness. Only a week end separated Judge Bootle’s surprise order and the appearance of Charlayne and Hamilton on the campus—not enough time for either the side of law or the side of violence to marshal its forces. A succession of contradictory court orders and ambiguous executive acts added to the confusion. At one point Judge Bootle stayed his own order, to allow time for an appeal, only to have Elbert Tuttle, chief judge of the Fifth Circuit, rescind the stay within a couple of hours. From the vague statements of Governor Vandiver and the refusal of President O. C. Aderhold to say anything at all, it was often not clear whether the university would remain open or not. The result of all the confusion was three relatively nonviolent, if chaotic, days for Charlayne and Hamilton, and a spate of congratulations to the university from television newscasters and Northern newspapers on how well everybody had behaved.
Some of the undergraduates at Georgia had spent the week end rounding up signatures for petitions to keep the university open—the dominant concern of most students. Others had engaged in some minor effigy and cross burning, including a sorry demonstration I witnessed on the football practice field the Saturday night before Charlayne and Hamilton arrived. Twenty or so students wanted to burn a cross made of two-by-fours, but, owing to a lack of kerosene and a lack of experience in the art, they were unable to get it ablaze. Most of the demonstrations against integration during the new students’ first three days on the campus seemed to be in that tradition. When Charlayne and Hamilton showed up at nine o’clock Monday morning, they were met only by a small group of curious students and a few reporters. In fact, throughout the first day, as Hamilton and his father and Horace Ward walked around campus going through the registration process, they often met with nothing more than some stares or a muttered “Hey, there’s that nigger.” The crowds around Charlayne were larger, but they seemed almost playful, even when they began to bounce a car she was riding in, or swarmed into the Academic Building, where she was registering, to yell, “Two-four-six-eight! We-don’t-want-to-integrate!”—a chant they had borrowed from the women screaming at six-year-olds outside the integrated schools in New Orleans. A large crowd, triggered by a speech of Vandiver’s that seemed to say the school would close, marched through downtown Athens on Monday night behind a Confederate flag. On Tuesday night, the first night Charlayne spent on campus, some of those who had found out which dormitory she had been assigned to—Center Myers—gathered on the street in front of it to chant, push around some television cameramen, and throw some firecrackers. It was a rowdier crowd, but, like the rest, it was broken up single-handedly by Dean Tate, who confiscated some university identification cards and told some of the boys he knew to go home.
In a special issue of the campus newspaper Tuesday, ten student leaders issued a warning that violence could only mar the image of the university. By Wednesday just about everybody on the campus knew there was a riot scheduled in front of Charlayne’s dormitory after the basketball game that night. It had been organized by a number of law-school students. All day Wednesday, the organizers scurried around making plans and bragging about the promises of help and immunity they had received from legislators. Some students got dates for the basketball game and the riot afterward. Reporters, faculty members, and even some students warned Joseph Williams, the dean of students, about the riot and suggested that he ban gatherings in front of the dormitory, or at least cancel the basketball game. But Williams said that neither step was necessary. Just after ten, a small crowd of students gathered on the lawn in front of Center Myers and unfurled a bed sheet bearing the legend “Nigger Go Home.” Then three or four of them peeled off from the group, ran toward the dormitory, and flung bricks and Coke bottles through the window of Charlayne’s room. Dean Tate had been assigned by Williams to remain with the crowd at the gymnasium after the basketball game, and Williams himself, standing in front of the crudely lettered sign, made no attempt to break up the group. As more people came up the hill from the basketball game—a close loss to Georgia Tech—and a few outsiders showed up, the mob grew to about a thousand people, many of them throwing bricks, rocks, and firecrackers. The few Athens police present were busy directing traffic, and after about thirty minutes Williams finally acceded to the arguments of a reporter that the state police should be called. Although the university understood that thirty state troopers would be standing ready in their barracks outside Athens, the desk sergeant said that he could not send the troopers without the permission of the captain. But the captain said he had to have authority from the commissioner of public safety, and the commissioner, in turn, said he could not make a move without an order from the governor. In a failure of communications that still fascinates students of Georgia backroom shenanigans, it was so long before the governor gave the order that the state police did not arrive until an hour after the riot was over and, according to most estimates, two hours and twenty minutes after they were called. Then a carload of them came to take Charlayne and Hamilton back to Atlanta.
The riot was finally broken up by the arrival, together, of Dean Tate, who waded in and started grabbing identification cards, and of more Athens cops, who started fighting back when they were pushed and eventually drove everybody away with tear gas. It had been a nasty riot, but the group courage that sometimes comes to mobs had never infected it. Although the students could have stormed the dormitory several times without meeting any effective defense, they never did. A few hours after the television newscasters had congratulated Georgia on its behavior, the area around Center Myers looked like a deserted battlefield, with bricks and broken glass on the lawn, small brush fires in the woods below the dormitory, and the bite of tear gas still in the air. The casualties were several injured policemen, a girl on the second floor who had been scratched by a rock, and, as it turned out, the university’s reputation. Dean Williams suspended Charlayne and Hamilton, informing them that it was “for your own safety and the safety of almost seven thousand other students,” and they were driven back to Atlanta. Williams’ on-the-spot decision to suspend the target of the mob, rather than those in the mob itself, seemed unrelated to anybody’s safety, since it was made after the last rioter had gone home and after university and Athens officials had assured him that order had been restored and that giving in to the mob would only mean going through the whole experience again. Dean Williams and Charlayne, who was crying by this time and clutching a statue of the Madonna, walked right out of the front door of Center Myers into the state police car, watched only by a few straggling reporters.
From the moment the two arrived on campus, Charlayne attracted much more attention than Hamilton. The reason was a great subject of debate among the reporters in Athens, some of whom devised complicated anthropological theories about greater interest in the enemy female. Others said it was only natural that unfriendly students should believe the girl more likely to be frightened away by their presence and that friendly students should think her more in need of their support. Dean Tate’s answer is that it was merely a matter of convenience. He calculated that two or three times during the day there were two thousand students within two hundred yards of Charlayne, whose classes at the Henry W. Grady School of Journalism kept her on the busiest part of the campus, whereas there were far fewer students around the science center (which is removed from the main campus), where Hamilton spent most of the week. The fact that Charlayne took a dormitory room, while Hamilton moved in with a Negro family in Athens, made the difference even greater. Then, after the riot, stories about it, including a widely published picture of Charlayne leaving the dormitory in tears, made her better known to people outside Athens as well.
The immediate result of Charlayne’s publicity was that in her first week or two at Georgia she received about a thousand letters—three or four times the number Hamilton got—from all over the United States and several foreign countries. Charlayne’s mother filed all the letters by states, the Georgia and New York folders ending up the fattest, and later sent each of the writers a reprint of an article Charlayne wrote about her experience for a short-lived Negro magazine called the Urbanite. I was interested in seeing just what people wrote in such letters, and during my return visit to Georgia I borrowed the folders from Mrs. Hunter, who has them stored in a big pasteboard box. Charlayne told me later that the University of Georgia library would like to have the letters eventually but that she hesitated to give them up, especially while some of the writers might be embarrassed by even a historian’s perusal of their names and opinions. That was an understandable objection, I thought, but it did seem like the justice of scholarship for the university to end up with one thousand expressions of outrage at its behavior. And they would make a good companion exhibit to the library’s most famous historical document, the original Constitution of the Confederacy, a scroll that is said to be twelve feet long.
I was surprised to discover only fifteen or twenty abusive letters, and I was more surprised to find that most of the particularly foul ones were from the North. The unfriendly letters from the South, even if they were written in the guise of kindly advice, were instantly recognizable, since in almost every case they contained no conventional salutation. “Dear Charlayne” would have been too chummy, and anybody willing to say “Miss Hunter” apparently would not have written a letter in the first place. Most of the writers solved the problem by starting out with a flat “Charlayne Hunter,” as if they were beginning a formal proclamation.
There were also surprisingly few crank letters, although some of the writers were obviously just lonely people who wanted somebody to write to, and a few of the letters, like the one from Italy that began “Dear Little Swallow,” reflected emotions other than sympathy. A number were from Negro undergraduates (their own experiences with separate but equal education revealed in their spelling) who sent along a picture and hoped that a correspondence might develop. Many of the writers told Charlayne they were praying for her; many of the Cathlics mentioned her conversion to Catholicism. She received dozens of prayer cards, copies of sermons by Harry Emerson Fosdick and Norman Vincent Peale, Seventh Day Adventist tracts, and two books by Gandhi. Several letters were from college student councils or N.A.A.C.P. chapters that had taken resolutions supporting Charlayne and deploring the action of those who persecuted her. Most of the letters from individuals also expressed admiration for Charlayne’s “courage and dignity”—the phrase was used almost as one word—and outrage at the mob. There was often a mention of helplessness in the letters from Northerners, which included phrases such as “This must be small comfort” and “Of course, I can never really understand.” Some of those who believed they could never really understand nevertheless tried to establish their credentials for understanding, listing personal experiences with prejudice or with Negroes. A girl at the University of Connecticut told Charlayne that her high school had a Negro teacher, who was considered by all the students to be the best teacher in the school; the yearbook had been dedicated to him four out of the five years he had been there. A young white woman in West Virginia said that she was attending a formerly all-Negro college, “YOUR people are teaching ME,” she wrote. But the great majority of letters from the North had no personal experiences to offer. In many of them, a picture of Charlayne cut from a newspaper was enclosed, and most of them seemed to be from sensible, decent people who were appalled by the picture of a pretty girl being bullied by a mob and felt they had to write, even if they didn’t know quite what to say.
The letters from Georgia had a different theme. Many of them were from University of Georgia alumni, who seemed to have a very specific and compelling reason for writing. They wanted to tell Charlayne that not all of them were like the mob or the people who permitted it to form. As I read through their letters, it seemed to me that each person who wrote felt he had to assure Charlayne of that or she might not know. On the whole, of course, the Georgia letters were also more realistic. But none quite captured the plain realism of a young boy in Rochester, New York, one of two dozen pupils in a parochial school eighth grade who had apparently written to Charlayne as a class project. “Dear Miss Hunter,” he said. “I am very sorry for the way you are being treated. I hope you have the courage to take this treatment in the future. Respectfully yours.”
I had first discussed the letters with Charlayne two years before, when she was back in Atlanta for the week end after her second week at the university. Since her return to the campus following the riot, she had been under police protection, and consequently she was now cut off from the rest of the students even more sharply than she had been during the chaotic first week. She seemed amazed and moved by the number of people who had written to her, but she found some of their letters slightly off the subject. “All these people say, ‘Charlayne, we just want you to know you’re not alone,’ ” she said, smiling. “But I look all around and I don’t see anybody else.”
Many reasonable people in Georgia, when they look back on what everybody calls “that night,” believe that, all things considered, the riot was beneficial as well as inevitable—a nice clean shocker to polarize opinion, revolt decent citizens, and purge the violent of their anger. This line of thinking has never appealed much to Charlayne, who tends to be less dispassionate about the events of that night, but she admits that the reaction to the riot by the state and the university meant that she and Hamilton need no longer have any real fear about their physical safety. About the only public figure in the state who did not express outrage over the riot was Peter Zach Geer, who was then Governor Vandiver’s executive secretary and later became lieutenant governor. He issued a statement, late that night, saying, in part, “The students at the University have demonstrated that Georgia youth are possessed with the character and courage not to submit to dictatorship and tyranny.” Geer eventually found those ringing words a political liability. With almost everybody else in a mood for law and order, Governor Vandiver guaranteed that the peace would be maintained when, under a new court order, Charlayne and Hamilton returned to the campus the following Monday.
In their reaction to the riot, each of the groups involved in the situation—the state’s politicians and the university’s administration, faculty, and students—seemed to set the pattern for their future behavior. The university administration, looking around for somebody else to blame, eventually found the press (the group that had appeared most interested in preventing the riot) and “outsiders,” represented by seven Knights of the Ku Klux Klan who had been arrested in their car on the campus that night. The Klansmen, sullen, ugly, and properly ominous, had been armed, and did afford an indication of what might have happened if the tear gas had not broken up the mob, but, as a matter of fact, they had left their arms in the car and had taken no real part in the riot. Nevertheless, they had guns and bad reputations, and were more logical suspects than respectable law students. Administration officials at first thought that a ban on student demonstrations would be undemocratic, but by the end of the week, finding the pressure for the ban greater than the pressure against it, they established a permanent policy of not putting up with overt hostility.
The faculty had maintained silence while the administration felt its way through the crisis, but with the riot and the suspension of Charlayne and Hamilton it almost exploded. A meeting was called the night after the riot, and eventually about four hundred faculty members signed a resolution that said, in part, “We insist that the two suspended students be returned to their classes.” It was an extraordinarily strong statement for that time in Georgia; insisting that Negroes attend classes with whites was not a popular view, no matter what the circumstances. But the faculty went unpunished, and even when some professors organized groups to patrol the campus the first few nights Charlayne and Hamilton were back in Athens, there were no reprisals of any sort. The legislators in Atlanta noted the resolution with displeasure but expressed their displeasure in no concrete action. For their own part, they set up an investigating committee called “The Special Committee Appointed on the 12th Day of January, 1961, by the Speaker of the House of Representatives of the General Assembly of the State of Georgia to Find and Ascertain Facts Concerning the Certain Happenings and Episodes Surrounding the Admission of Two Negro Students to the University of Georgia.” One of the facts the committee found and ascertained was that “the majority of rocks were aimed at Center Myers Dormitory and not at persons.” Another was that “many students feel they are being unduly restrained in exercising their right of freedom of assembly and speech.” But the legislators did not seem terribly interested, and sooner or later most of them actually appeared relieved to be done with the issue that had absorbed so much of their energy for so long.
The pattern of the students’ attitude toward Charlayne and Hamilton emerged during the week of their return. The fraternities and sororities let it be known that anybody interested in his own position on campus would be wise not to talk to the two Negroes. Another group of students, most of them associated in one way or another with Westminster House, the campus Presbyterian organization, formed a group called Students for Constructive Action. They posted signs about the Golden Rule in the classroom buildings and arranged to take turns walking with Charlayne and Hamilton on their way to classes. The girls in Center Myers had all trooped down to visit Charlayne the first night she was in the dormitory, reinforcing a widely held opinion that girls would always be kind to a new girl, even a new Negro girl. But on the following night, during the riot, their behavior changed drastically. After the first bricks had crashed into her room, Charlayne went to a partly partitioned office, ordinarily used by one of the student counselors, and stayed there during most of what followed. A group of Center Myers coeds soon formed a circle in front of the office and marched around, each screaming an insult as she got to the door. “They had been told to strip their beds because tear-gas fumes might get into the sheets,” Charlayne said to me later. “They kept yelling that they would give me twenty-five cents to make their beds, although at the hourly rate I was being paid by the N.A.A.C.P. according to them, it wouldn’t have made much sense for me to work for a quarter. They kept yelling, ‘Does she realize she’s causing all this trouble?’ Out of all the girls who had visited me the night before, only one girl came in and stayed in the office with me. But I finally made her go to bed. After a while, Mrs. Porter, the housemother, told me to get my things together because I was going back to Atlanta, and that’s when I started to cry. Dean Williams carried my books and my suitcase, which was pretty nice. He could have made me carry them. When we went by to pick up Hamp, he wanted to drive his own car back. I guess by then my imagination was running wild; I could imagine KKK all up and down the highway. I didn’t want Hamp to drive, and I almost got hysterical. Finally he said okay, he’d go with the troopers. Dean Tate went with us, and talked all the way back about the little towns we went through—things like why Dacula is pronounced Dacula instead of Dacula. The next day, at home, the lights were low, and people kept coming by saying how sorry they were. It felt as if I had been ill for a long time and was about to go, or as if somebody had already died. I was going back to Athens, but I was glad we didn’t have to go back for two or three days.”