ALICE’S willingness to make an estimate of what had to be done was not characteristic. Harold and the girls, eager to be accepted as normal students, usually avoided talking about having a mission at Georgia. But Charlayne and Hamilton, the Student Heroes, had been expected to do a certain amount of talking about it in public from the start. Their attitudes toward public speaking had gradually shifted. As Hamilton became more willing to give up his textbooks and his week-end basketball occasionally for speaking engagements, Charlayne became less interested in speaking at all. During their last few months at Georgia, Hamilton spoke fairly often, usually before church groups around the state or at meetings of his fraternity. After his speech at the Annual Youth Day of Emmanuel Baptist Church, he said, “I tell you how I feel about it. Three years ago, if I got up to say something, it was just a young boy talking. Now we have some respect; people listen because of the situation here. I figure now we can do our people some good. I don’t mean go around advocating taking over everything. I’m no radical. But like that speech I made Sunday about going after education.”
As one of the outstanding students at Georgia, Hamilton was in a good position to encourage other Negroes to go there and to other white schools as a matter of self-improvement. The University of Georgia may not be a distinguished university, but it seems that way to anybody who has ever seen the three state colleges for Negroes. In fact, after Hamilton’s speech at the Phyllis Wheatley Branch of the Y.W.C.A., it occurred to me that he was in the extraordinarily fortunate position of having personal goals that both served and were served by the Cause. Hamilton told the Wheatley audience that the two-and-a-half-year ordeal at Georgia had been worthwhile, because without it he would probably have been unable to get into Emory Medical School. He apparently meant exactly that; the best medical education in the state was his goal, and if he had not gone to Georgia his acceptance by Emory would have been very unlikely. But it was also true that if he, or somebody like him, had not gone to Georgia, the acceptance of any Negro by Emory would have been very unlikely. In that sense, Hamilton was, as Charlayne had told me at the beginning of my visit, a more consistent study than she was. He was a Student Hero who was, in his specific collegiate achievements (apart from his willingness to attend Georgia in the first place), a hero. He had satisfied himself and his family and the Cause, even if he was sick of the whole business and was just waiting for the first of June.
During most of the time Charlayne and Hamilton were at Georgia, Charlayne, outgoing, articulate, and seemingly comfortable in any surroundings, did most of the speaking for both of them. She was much better known than Hamilton, and, unlike Hamilton, who looked forward to week ends in Atlanta, she didn’t mind traveling around on week ends. She flew to New York several times to speak before such groups as the N.A.A.C.P. and the Catholic Interracial Council. She went to Pittsburgh for another Catholic Interracial Council conference and to Boston for an N.A.A.C.P. meeting. She participated in a meeting at Skidmore College, in a civil-rights program sponsored by the Methodist Church in Washington, in a Fellowship of Southern Churchmen conference in Nashville. She received an award from the Association of Negro Business and Professional Women at its state convention in Macon, and one from a Negro fraternity at Wayne in Detroit.
But, more and more, Charlayne had come to recognize the irony of spending a week end in New York, where everybody found her charming, and then returning to the long weeks in Athens, where she was likely to be sneered at when she went to the Co-op for a cup of coffee. There was a special kind of loneliness, she discovered, in being the best-known student on campus and a social undesirable at the same time. Moreover, her ambitions were not as easily related to the Cause as Hamilton’s—she had no desire to be the Number 1 student at Georgia or to be admitted to Emory Medical School—and she felt a certain hollowness in being honored as a Student Hero without having done anything that was, by the ordinary standards of collegiate success, heroic. Once, discussing a professor who had “made a big thing” out of his role in the integration crisis, Charlayne said, “I just don’t think it should be the biggest thing in his life. He’s sixty years old. If my experiences here were all I could talk about, I would get really worried. I’d just be a record player. I’m too young to have already done the most important thing in my life. Look, it may be the most exciting or dramatic thing I’ll ever do, but I can’t think that it’s all I’ll ever talk about. It doesn’t take anything. It doesn’t take brains, or anything. It just can’t be the biggest thing in my life. When I go to those meetings, people try to make me feel that I’m representing the whole Negro race, and that’s not right. I’m not representing anybody. I’m not an ideal girl or the perfect student. I don’t want to be an ideal girl—just a girl.” And what would the ideal be, Charlayne wondered. What was it she was being honored for? What connection did the honors have with the number of friends she had or the number of professors who thought she was bright or the number of young men who thought she was pretty? In addition, Charlayne, as it happened, was of the age and turn of mind to greet any grandiloquent cliché with a shudder—a characteristic that would have made her uncomfortable on any banquet circuit. She had the disquieting habit of juxtaposing an idealistic generalization and one of her own specific experiences. What did “the fight for full emancipation” have to do with driving around Athens because there was no place to stop, or waiting in the Red and Black office while everybody else was asked to do something? If everybody was so interested in “the cause of freedom,” why didn’t anybody do anything about encouraging more Negro high-school seniors to go to Georgia? And why did she have to scratch around before every quarter to get enough money to go back to school?
Early in my return visit to Georgia, I had a chance to accompany Charlayne on one of her last speaking engagements—or, more accurately, one of her last public appearances. She warned me ahead of time that she would have little to say. The occasion was the Freedom Awards Dinner of the N.A.A.C.P. Southeastern Regional Conference, in Tampa. According to the original plans, Charlayne, Hamilton, James Meredith, and Harvey Gantt were all supposed to receive plaques at the dinner. But Hamilton was unable to go, having already promised his fraternity he would give a speech in Cincinnati, and by the time the week of the dinner arrived, Harvey Gantt had also sent word that he would not be able to make it because he was in the middle of exams at Clemson. Charlayne herself was not eager to go, although her father and her grandfather live in Tampa. “I feel like a hypocrite giving those speeches,” she told me, “all that We Shall Overcome business. I believe in it, sure. But there are some things I believe that I just don’t believe in talking about. And I have to break away from that image business sooner or later. I can’t spend my life being an image.”
But Charlayne decided she would be an image for one more evening at least, mainly because she had promised Vernon Jordan, then the Georgia field secretary for the N.A.A.C.P., that she would be there. Jordan was a good friend of Charlayne’s. Before joining the N.A.A.C.P. staff, he had worked in the office of Donald Hollowell, and had helped plow through the admission records of the university in preparation for the Athens trial.
James Meredith, too, was definitely attending the dinner. I had met him almost exactly two years before, in Jackson, when Mrs. Motley was in Mississippi to file the first motion in the case to get him admitted to the University of Mississippi. At the time, he seemed to me to be about what it would take to battle the Mississippi monolith. Before returning to Georgia, I said something of the sort to Mrs. Motley, and she agreed. “In Harlem, they would say Charlayne and Hamilton are ‘white,’ ” she told me. “In other words, they don’t have any of the disadvantages of a sharecropper background. But Meredith is very bitter, a real crusader. He wants to get back at society.” While Charlayne and Hamilton were interested only in getting something approaching a normal education, Mrs. Motley said, Meredith was consciously out to start the breakdown of the system that had oppressed him so long, whatever the cost to him. Already twenty-seven when he applied for admission to Ole Miss, he had to slow down his courses at Jackson State to avoid earning his degree before he was accepted. In the simplest terms, Meredith differed from Charlayne and Hamilton as rural Mississippi differed from middle-class Atlanta, and some people who knew all the Student Heroes believed that even if a middle-class Negro community had existed in Mississippi, Ole Miss would have had to be left to Meredith. “Meredith is real angry,” one of them told me in Atlanta. “He’s fighting the battle all the time—everything he says, everything he does. I’m not sure that Charlayne or Hamp could have stayed over there as long as he has.”
Before the flight to Tampa, while Charlayne and I were having a drink at the Atlanta airport (it was built in 1961, with all facilities desegregated), I asked her if she knew Meredith.
“You mean ‘I, James H. Meredith’?” she asked. Charlayne, it turned out, always called Meredith by his full name, sometimes even including the personal pronoun, in reference to the rather self-conscious press conferences he had held at Ole Miss. “He called me after the first few days there,” she said. “I had sent him a telegram wishing him luck, and all that. At first, I didn’t believe it was him when he called. It was kind of awkward, because we didn’t know what to say. I finally asked how things were going, and he said, ‘Listen,’ and I could hear the firecrackers. Then he came through Atlanta last Christmas; he and Hamp’s family and Hollowell and a couple of people came over to the house one night. He’s very defensive. We sure weren’t trying to trap him, but he never let down his guard. But James H. Meredith is okay. Of course, he has about as much sense of humor as Martin Luther King.”
It was hot and sticky in Tampa. Vernon Jordan had driven to the airport to pick us up, and Charlayne greeted him by saying, “Only for you, buddy, only for you.” Jordan laughed and packed us into the car for a ride over the causeway to St. Petersburg, where he had to pick up the plaques that Charlayne and the others were going to receive that night. We drove from St. Petersburg to a Tampa church, where the business part of the conference was in progress, and Charlayne and I waited in the car while Jordan went in to look for her father. The dinner was to be held in the gymnasium of the Howard W. Blake Vocational School, a Negro high school in West Tampa, and Charlayne remarked, “I’m glad it’s not at a church tonight. Meetings in churches always get too much like mass meetings. Like the meeting they had for Emancipation Day in Atlanta. Nobody ever put on a display like that. They took the collection twice. First, they had all those thirty thousand people file up and put in a contribution, and then the chairman said, We know some of you are just too tired to walk up here,’ and passed around the basket. It started at eleven, and at three it still wasn’t over. I mean, it makes you rather not be emancipated.”
Charlayne’s father was not at the church, nor was he at his house, where we drove next. By the time we had started back through downtown Tampa toward Charlayne’s quarters for the night, conversation had languished, despite the efforts of the ebullient Jordan.
Since hotel accommodations for Negroes in Tampa were practically nonexistent, most of the visitors to the convention had been assigned to private houses. Being an important visitor, Charlayne, who had decided not to stay with her father and grandfather, drew what was considered to be the best private house of all, that of Leon Claxon, who, as manager of a dance troupe known as Harlem in Havana, toured the fair circuit for six months a year and lived in a large, Florida-style, pink-brick house the other six.
James Meredith, who was also staying with the Claxons, arrived shortly before the dinner was scheduled to start. Meredith, smiling and friendly, exchanged hearty greetings with Charlayne. He laughed easily, and seemed relieved to be among friends. Jordan told me that this was one of the first trips Meredith had made unescorted by marshals since he had been at Ole Miss, although, Jordan added, the F.B.I. in Tampa had phoned to check his schedule. Shortly after he arrived, Meredith went into his room to change his clothes, and emerged looking much as he had before, like a small, neat, carefully dressed accountant.
Charlayne, who was in the living room, said, “Why, there’s James H. Meredith, looking good.”
“I thought nobody would ever say that,” Meredith replied, and everybody laughed.
When we arrived at the gym, Charlayne’s father, a handsome and impressive-looking man in full clerical dress, including a large cross hanging from a heavy chain around his neck, was one of a group of people talking in the corridor outside. Colonel Hunter, who has a sonorous voice and a tendency to use phrases like “the essence of American democracy,” immediately began introducing Charlayne around. James Popovich, the speech professor who had taken an interest in all of the first Negro students at Georgia, was also there, having transferred to the University of South Florida, in Tampa, the previous fall.
The gymnasium was a large, plain room, its cinder-block walls painted two shades of green, and it was so jammed with long tables that, once seated, a guest was almost immobile. Charlayne and her father sat at the head table. Popovich and I managed to find two seats at the end of a table toward the back of the room. The dinner guests, some of them delegates to the three-day conference, others Tampa residents, were well dressed and in a convivial mood. Four or five white reporters leaned against one wall, looking uncomfortable. The master of ceremonies turned out to be Charlayne’s host, Leon Claxon, a roly-poly man with a quick, state-fair delivery. He began the program immediately after the invocation, and at the same time the waiters began to squeeze up and down the tables serving dinner.
There was no public-address system, and the only person on the program who could be heard clearly through the clatter of silverware and conversation was the first speaker, Mrs. Ruby Hurley, the Southeastern regional director; she had a well-pitched voice and a clarity of diction that brought occasional nods of professional approval from Popovich. Mrs. Hurley began announcing branch contributions to the N.A.A.C.P. Freedom Fund, one of the main sources of the organization’s operating expenses. Seventy-five dollars was reported from Jacksonville, a hundred dollars from Savannah, a hundred from Jackson, Mississippi. Mrs. Hurley expressed amazement at the generosity of little Perry, Florida, which presented fifty dollars from the main branch and thirty-five dollars from its youth council. “You know what Perry is like?” she asked the audience. “It’s a smaller city like Birmingham. And if you don’t know what Birmingham is, it’s like any place in Mississippi.”
The audience murmured agreement, and I could feel its comfort in being in the crowded but safe gymnasium of the Howard W. Blake Vocational School in West Tampa instead of in Perry or Birmingham or Mississippi.
Claxon took over from Mrs. Hurley to announce that he was the holder of five N.A.A.C.P. life memberships—two, at five hundred dollars apiece, for him and his wife, and three, at one hundred a piece, for his children. He said that a well-known businessman, a leading citizen named Lee, had confessed to him not long ago that he was not a life member, because nobody had ever asked him to be. “He’s here tonight,” Claxon said, “and I’m asking him to buy three life memberships.” Lee stood up and said he would not be high-pressured; he had come intending to buy one life membership, and he would do that. Following two vocal solos—“Temptation” and “September Song”—Aaron Henry, the Mississippi N.A.A.C.P. conference president, presented Meredith with his plaque for “furthering the cause of higher education in Mississippi.” By that time, enough people had been served so that we had to lean forward to catch even an occasional phrase of Meredith’s speech, which started out with “It is with deep honor and satisfaction” and included, toward the end, “satisfying to see so many young people.” The audience gave Meredith a standing ovation, quite a feat in the packed gymnasium. They did not try it again for Charlayne, who received only enthusiastic applause as she accepted her plaque and said, her soft voice even less audible than Meredith’s, “You write me, ‘We prayed for you.’ I don’t like that past tense. There’s still a few months to go. So keep praying. And keep supporting the N.A.A.C.P. This fight is not going to end when Hamp and I graduate from Georgia and Meredith graduates from Mississippi.”
Claxon introduced Charlayne’s father and grandfather; a plaque was presented to George Allen, the first Negro to graduate from the University of Florida Law School; and then Mrs. Hurley rose again, to present branch awards for gains in membership. Jackson County, Florida, won the award in the under-200-quota category, having come up with 228 members in 1962; Coahoma County, Mississippi, Henry’s local branch, won the 200-to-500-quota group, with 419 members; and Macon, which had had 429 members in 1961 and had been asked for 500 in 1962, ended up with 820, to win in the over-500 category. Georgia won the Harry T. Moore award for state membership, and the Florida delegation got a mild chiding from Mrs. Hurley; the award was named for a Florida N.A.A.C.P. executive who was killed in the dynamiting of his house, she pointed out, but Florida had never won it. Since the N.A.A.C.P. is fundamentally a membership organization, what goes on at one of its dinners gives the first impression of being rather far removed from the basic problems of civil rights. The awards, even when they are given to branches that have made some real progress against segregation—in Macon, for instance, the parks and buses had been integrated, largely through the efforts of the local N.A.A.C.P. branch—are given for gains in membership and in fund-raising, with integration mentioned only in passing. It is true that the conference program included seminars on how to get voters registered as well as on how to get members for the local branch, and I knew that for the average Southern Negro merely becoming a member is an important step forward, reflecting a change in his attitude as well as providing financial support for a program that could eventually affect his life; yet it was difficult to escape the feeling during the dinner that the cycle of recruiting members in order to raise money in order to recruit members went on without anyone’s ever coming to grips with the issues.
As Mrs. Hurley completed the branch awards, she asked if she had missed any branch donations, and a very small old man shuffled toward the front of the room. Mrs. Hurley, who seemed to know him well, introduced him as R. A. Reddick, who had been secretary of the Live Oak, Florida, branch for twenty years. “And I want to tell you what kind of place Live Oak is,” she went on. “That’s in Suwannee County, and every time I hear the song ‘Swanee River’ I think about Live Oak and the time I went to speak there a few years ago. When I got through with my speech, they were driving me back to the airport and they seemed anxious that I get out before nightfall. I asked why, and they told me this story—you correct me if I’m wrong, Mr. Reddick. There was a ten-year-old boy in Live Oak named James Howard. He worked around a store there. One day, in about 1943, the storekeeper’s daughter heard him whistling a tune and she asked him to write the words down for her on a piece of paper. Well, the storekeeper saw the piece of paper later, and he took it for a love letter and asked who had written it. The daughter told him it was James Howard. So the storekeeper and some of his friends got this boy—ten years old—and took him down by the Swannee River and tied him up. Then some of them went to get the boy’s father and brought him down to the river. Some of them held the father so he could see, and the others took this ten-year-old boy and threw him in the river. That’s the kind of place Mr. Reddick lives in.”
The audience looked at Reddick in silence. The old man had been nodding during the speech, as if he were recalling James Howard and his father and his neighbors. “Fifteen dollars from the Live Oak branch,” Mrs. Hurley said. The audience applauded. As Mrs. Hurley thanked him, Reddick nodded again, and smiled, and shuffled back to his chair.
Next came more music, this time by the Youth Choir of Laurel, Mississippi—about thirty Negro children, of all sizes. Before they started to sing, Mrs. Hurley told of the sacrifices that Dr. B. E. Murph, a Laurel dentist, had made to keep the choir going and get it to a number of regional and national N.A.A.C.P. conventions. She asked for donations to help the singers get back to Laurel and to pay for their dinners.
When the choir sat down, after two spirituals, Meredith stood up to make a surprise comment on the Laurel students. “People always ask me what keeps me going,” he said. “Those people keep me going. I’ve had a choice in everything I’ve done. But they don’t have a choice.”
Then Claxon stood up for some more fund-raising. “I don’t want to hear about that last five dollars for the choir,” he said. “We’re talking now about that second five dollars. Who in this row has five dollars for freedom?”
The meeting ended with a strong chorus of “God Be with You Till We Meet Again” and a benediction by Charlayne’s grandfather, who is also a minister. Charlayne and Meredith stayed on the dais autographing programs while, at a table below them, Mrs. Hurley and two or three helpers counted up the donations.
From the gym, I went back to Claxon’s with Charlayne for a party in his downstairs recreation room, which was lined with pictures of the Harlem in Havana dance troupe. The party got off to a poor start for Popovich, when he told Meredith that his experience at Georgia had been that the university theater was a good place to begin integrating university events, since the Drama Department was generally cooperative. “It’s not a matter of cooperation,” Meredith told him. “I have a student activity card, and I have a right to go.” Charlayne and I were cornered for a while by a man from South Carolina, who told us that Harvey Gantt was his protégé. Soon, however, the individual conversations broke up, for Claxon began to tell some jokes. “You know, Ross Barnett said, ‘This is the darkest day of my life’ when you got into school there,” Claxon said, pointing to Meredith. “But then some cat next to him said, ‘That’s not the darkest day. The darkest day is when you get to Heaven and a voice says, “Hello dere, Ah am de Lawd.” ’ ” It was an old joke, but it got a good laugh, especially from Meredith.
Later, Meredith remarked that the dinner had been too long. “We’re going to have to think of a better way to keep up enthusiasm and morale,” he said. “This is a drawn-out way.” He also said he was sorry that Harvey Gantt and Hamilton had not been able to attend the meeting. “Did you see Hamp on TV a couple of months ago?” he asked. “Hamp’s my boy. He said that the time he made them think he had a gun was the first time he got any respect. He said he hated to do it that way; then he sat back and said, ‘But I had to.’ That’s my kind of talk. Hamp’s okay.”
After the party, Popovich and I left together, and he anticipated my first question by assuring me that his departure from the University of Georgia had nothing to do with his role in its integration. “The administration could have very easily got word to me to slow down, but they never did,” he said. The members of the Georgia faculty, Popovich believed, treated all the Negro students fairly, but, except for the two or three who had invited Charlayne and Hamilton to dinner, few went out of their way to make them more comfortable. “They espouse integration after a couple of drinks, and then start talking about their mortgages,” said Popovich.
“Hamp, more than any other kid in that situation, was really interested in what the university could give him academically,” Popovich went on. “But Hamp was also the first one to attend a university event. We had an arena theater, and I arranged the audience so he was surrounded by reasonable people, and I was very careful about the people facing him. Close to a hundred people came up to me after the play, and the funny thing was that more of them mentioned how nice they thought it was that he was there than how they liked the play. Charlayne resented being managed. She wanted to do things her own way.”
On the plane back to Atlanta the next morning I asked Charlayne what she thought of James H. Meredith’s unexpected speech about the Laurel Youth Choir. I was hoping, I think, for a bit of humor to lighten the journey, and her answer surprised me.
“You know, I almost cried when I heard those kids sing,” she said. “Did you hear that first spiritual, ‘I’ve Been ’Buked and I’ve Been Scorned’? You know, it’s written ’buked instead of rebuked because that’s the way it was supposedly sung on the plantation. But I don’t think those kids know the difference; they probably think that’s the way it’s pronounced. I remember, in Covington, when I was a little girl, even though my father had been to college, there were words I mispronounced for years. I’d leave the whole middle syllable out sometimes. And in some of those letters people sent me after the riot a lot of the words were spelled phonetically, with one or two syllables missing. Meredith is right. He’s had a choice in everything he did, and those kids haven’t. They were just pitiful.”
We talked about whether the money and energy spent on the choir might better be spent more directly in Laurel.
Charlayne thought that was possible. “I don’t know how many people the choir reaches,” she said. ‘Take last night—those people were convinced anyway.”
I said maybe the choir was worthwhile just because it had moved both her and Meredith, who otherwise, as they went from meeting to meeting, might grow as cynical as she sometimes seemed to want me to believe she was.
“No. There’s always something or somebody at those meetings that makes me want to cry,” she said. “Like that little old man from Live Oak. He didn’t want to make a big thing of how much he’s done. He just came up there with his fifteen dollars.”