University of Georgia Reflects on Its Desegregation Legacy

Article excerpt

In the winter darkness of January 1961, moments after her lawyer and mother had left her alone in her dorm room, Charlayne Hunter could hear a crowd of fellow University of Georgia students chanting outside her window:

"Two, four, six, eight, we don't want to integrate..."

Complete with racial slurs, it was an unmistakable message from students enraged by a federal court order that had permitted Ms. Hunter and Hamilton Holmes to be the first African-Americans to enroll at the university in Athens, Ga.

But taunts were the lesser problem. The next night a brick came crashing through Hunter's dorm window, while police used tear gas to break up the ensuing melee. Hunter and Holmes were suspended by school officials "for their own safety."

Four decades after passing through the university's gates to crack the race barrier, Ms. Hunter-Gault is an award-winning journalist. Today, she will give a keynote address there to help celebrate the first desegregation of a public university in the deep South. (Holmes died in 1995 after becoming a well-known doctor in Atlanta.)

The UGA campus now is a vastly different place, even if race issues still flare occasionally, students and faculty say.

But marking a historic moment for desegregation takes on added relevance because of the spate of current cases challenging affirmative-action, which has been commonplace nationwide for decades.

Cases at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Washington in Seattle - as well as UGA itself - have reached the appeals stage and could be reviewed by the US Supreme Court. In each case, white applicants claimed reverse discrimination because of race-based factors in admissions.

Living down a reputation

Mark Anthony Thomas, who last year became the first black editor of UGA's student newspaper, thinks affirmative-action policies are still needed. Despite much progress, he and others say, the balance on campus still needs to be adjusted.

Approximately 6 percent of UGA students are black, in a state with a one-third minority population, he notes. Only about 40 percent of blacks who are accepted at UGA enroll, possibly because of perceptions that the campus would be hostile to them, Mr. Thomas says. But in his view, "The administration makes a conscious effort to make sure minorities feel welcome."

Thomas cites a remarkable degree of genuine enthusiasm on campus for the celebration of the 40th anniversary of desegregation. A volunteer student group he organized to publicize the event is about evenly split between blacks and whites - and a number of mostly white student groups are involved.

The strains that still remain, he and others say, have mostly to do with echoes of the past. One is the segregated Greek system. Last fall, a white UGA sorority made news by denying admission to a black applicant.

"The few problems we have are of the students' own making," Thomas says. "It's going to take years to dilute that reputation that we've had."

Robert Pratt, a UGA history professor, expects to publish a scholarly history of desegregation at the university this year. …