Fifty-five years ago, on January 9, 1961, when the University of Georgia (UGA) accepted its first two black students—Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter–Gault —America marked a key milestone in the battle for racial justice, equal rights, and an inclusive society. UGA’s integration eventually led to the desegregation of other universities throughout the South, and helped overcome barriers in higher education for people of color across the country.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) was a leader in this historic struggle, pursuing the legal strategy that forced open the gates of UGA. As UGA notes on its own website: “Holmes and Hunter–Gault were represented by a legal team headed by Atlanta civil rights attorney, Donald Hollowell, and Constance Baker-Motley of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.”
Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., now an LDF Senior Director, was a young Atlantan at the time, having just graduated from Howard University Law School. Jordan worked as a law clerk in Hollowell’s office, and was part of the final legal team that represented Hunter and Holmes, as well.
Motley and the other attorneys in the case faced many obstacles, not the least of which was an arduous 75 mile drive each way—through Ku Klux Klan territory—from Atlanta to Athens, Georgia (where the trial was held).
But, on January 6, 1961—when the federal court issued a ruling that “the two plaintiffs [Holmes and Hunter–Gault] are fully qualified for immediate admission” and “would already have been admitted had it not been for their race and color”—the legal brilliance, grit, and determination of Motley, Hollowell, Jordan, and the rest of the legal team paid off.
The extraordinary biographies of some of the heroes of the UGA desegregation case suggest how transformative the experience was and underline the courage needed to bring about social change—courage which stood them in good stead throughout their lives. LDF celebrates their accomplishments in desegregating UGA and finds inspiration in their examples.
Constance Baker-Motley, who earned her B.A. from New York University in 1943 and her law degree from the Columbia University School of Law in 1946, was a key architect in the fight for desegregation in the South. From 1945 to 1964, Motley worked on all of the major school desegregation cases brought by LDF. Motley, who later served as Associate Attorney and principal trial attorney at LDF, helped write briefs in the landmark school desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, for example. She continued as a pioneer after the LDF. She became the first African-American woman to serve in the New York State Senate and the first woman to serve as Manhattan Borough President. When President Johnson appointed her to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, she became the first African-American woman to sit as a federal judge. In 1993, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. In 2001, President Clinton awarded her the Presidential Citizens Medal.
Hamilton Holmes, the valedictorian of his high school, enrolled in Morehouse College after his initial application to UGA was rejected. But, interested in becoming a doctor, he was attracted by the science facilities at UGA and was persuaded to re-apply as part of the legal strategy to force the desegregation of the university. Despite starting his undergraduate career with chants of “Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate!” ringing in his ears, Holmes graduated cum laude from UGA in 1963 with a B.A. in Science. Fulfilling his medical ambitions, he became the first African-American to obtain his M.D. from the Emory University School of Medicine, and later became an assistant professor of orthopedics there. He then became chief of orthopedics at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Atlanta and, later, occupied the same post at Grady Memorial Hospital. He also became an associate dean at Emory’s medical school. In 1983, twenty years after graduating from UGA, Holmes became the first African-American member of the Board of Trustees of the UGA Foundation. In 2004, Georgia Public Television aired Hamilton Earl Holmes: The Legacy Continues, a documentary about his life, which won a Bronze Telly Award in 2005.
Long-time LDF friend and supporter, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the first Black woman to attend UGA, had applied to the university in 1959 along with another student from her high school, Holmes. The pair was informed that the dormitories were filled to capacity and could not admit them. Registering for classes amid shouts of protest after the first court order mandating their admission—and withstanding the violence of the 1,000-strong crowd—Hunter-Gault showed enormous perseverance, helping the legal team to solidify its landmark victory after a return to court. Today, Hunter-Gault is a renowned journalist and PBS anchor who has won many awards for her reporting in South Africa and the United States. Her published books include In My Place (1992) and To The Mountaintop: My Journey Through The Civil Rights Movement (2012). Her accolades include several George Foster Peabody Broadcast Awards and national news and documentary Emmy Awards.
LDF Senior Director Vernon E. Jordan, Jr. personally escorted Hunter-Gault past a group of angry white protesters to the university’s admissions office during the UGA desegregation effort. Jordan’s later leadership posts included stints as the NAACP Georgia field director and as the executive director of the United Negro College Fund. He served as president of the National Urban League from 1971 to 1981. Also a business leader, Jordan has been a senior managing director with Lazard Freres & Co. LLC and a member of the boards of directors of multiple corporations including: American Express, Corning, Dow Jones & Company, and Xerox. He published his award-winning memoir, Vernon Can Read!, in 2001, and a collection of speeches and commentary, entitled Make It Plain: Standing Up and Speaking Out, in 2008. Jordan has received numerous awards and honors, including Barnard College’s Medal of Distinction and the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal for lifetime achievement.